LONDON, July 28 (Reuters) - On the face of it a victory for Britain’s debut-making women’s volleyball team against formidable world champions Russia was about as likely as Queen Elizabeth parachuting into the Olympic Stadium with James Bond.
Film director Danny Boyle, with the help of some clever special effects, proved all things are possible the night before when the Monarch was apparently shown leaping out of a helicopter before taking her seat for an opening ceremony celebrating the best of Britain.
Volleyball did not feature in that ecstatic ride through British culture and the reality that it remains a marginal sport in the host nation hit home on Saturday during an emphatic loss.
When they lined up next to a towering Russian side boasting 6ft 8in (2.03 metres) blocker Ekaterina Gamova in their ranks on the first day of action at Earl’s Court the British team probably wished they could have called on the services of 007.
Alas, no help was on hand, other than the noisy home crowd, as the steely Russians showed little mercy to Britain’s battlers desperately to bridge a huge gulf in class and experience.
After an even start, Russia’s big gun Gamova and the equally deadly Nataliya Goncharova began punching holes in Britain’s defences with a series of 80mph missiles seemingly fired from the rafters of the old west London venue.
The 69th ranked British women, who like their male counterparts have never been involved in an Olympics before, resisted in fanatical fashion before losing 25-19 25-10 25-16.
It was no disgrace, particularly when considering the vast discrepancies in the two sides, not just in physicality, but also in facilities and funding.
In fact, there has been no funding for the British indoor volleyball teams, after it was cut by UK Sport two years ago.
Since then, the women’s side have begged and borrowed.
They prepared for the Olympics training and sleeping in a Sheffield fire and rescue station, paid for their own kit, took out loans and even did a charity bike ride to raise money.
Paupers of the British Olympic team they may be, but they lacked nothing in spirit, with all-action libero Maria Bertelli typifying the attitude with some incredible retrieving, often sliding head-first across the floor.
“The last few days we couldn’t wait to get going,” ex soccer player Bertelli, who is enjoying a second career after reaching the women’s FA Cup final with Charlton Athletic, told Reuters.
“We knew it would be tough and their height profile made it very difficult but the one thing about us is that you know we’ll keep going and we’ll be like that in every game.”
“When I was walking on the court I felt like we deserved to be here. We’ve worked hard. We’ve worked five years for this and there have been a lot of obstacles and we’ve overcome.
“I’m officially an Olympian now, and that’s really special.”
While Russia’s team of six-footers play their club volleyball with European powerhouses like Dinamo Moscow and Dinamo Kazan, Britain’s players have to travel to the continent’s lesser leagues in the winter to gain experience, then come back and find jobs to fund their sporting careers.
With such a low world ranking they required a host nation place to line up in the 12-team tournament in which Russia are expected to challenge Brazil and the United States for gold.
Some may suggest that their spot could have gone to a nation with a volleyball heritage, but Bertelli disagreed.
“Have (Russia) had to do what we’ve had to do,” she said. “All the obstacles we’ve faced have made us tighter as a unit.
“We are determined to change the sport in this country. It’s not just enough to be on the court today, but it was a big achievement. We have nothing to prove to anyone.
“We want to go out and show what we can do.”
Britain face Algeria in the second Pool A match on Monday — probably their best chance of a victory. “We’ll feel more comfortable on Monday,” she said.
Captain Lynne Beattie said her team had “gone out with all guns blazing” and predicted a first British Olympic volleyball win against Algeria.
“To play in front of 15,000 people is the highlight of my career so far,” said the Scottish spiker. “We’ll take the positives from it and do well against Algeria.” (Editing by Alison Wildey)