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|Central London provides a stunning backdrop for the competition in beach volleyball.|
Normally the venerable parade ground where the queen traditionally inspects the troops on her birthday, Horse Guards Parade is now the greatest, coolest venue in Olympic Games history with the possible exception of Usain Bolt's pad.
"It is such a trip," two-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh said. "I've never been to London and we're in it. We're in the thick of it."
They are indeed. London, as a British fan told me, is not known for its beaches. So rather than set up on the muddy banks of the Thames, the London organizing committee came up with an ingenious solution. They trucked in sand and created a beach smack in the middle of central London, amid some of the city's most historic sites.
Big Ben not only is visible from the stands -- and with some matches starting at 11 p.m. local time, it's easy to picture Peter Pan and Wendy sailing across its clock face -- you can actually hear it tolling. At least, you can when the venue speakers aren't blaring "I'm Sexy and I Know It," "Moves Like Jagger," "We Will Rock You," "Mambo No. 9," "Vertigo," "My Sharona" or any of several dozen other requisite party tunes.
|The Horse Guard Parade Dancers entertain the crowd during breaks in the beach volleyball action.|
The home of Prime Minister David Cameron, No. 10 Downing Street, is literally across the street from the volleyball court. As the Beach Boys, Van Halen and U2 filled the air Saturday night, I kept picturing Cameron bopping and twisting and dancing away in his home, a la Hugh Grant in "Love, Actually."
"Hopefully, he's sitting in his office getting work done and bouncing to the beat," Walsh said. "It's shocking. This would be like playing at the White House, and that would just never happen at home. They know what they're doing here."
Beach volleyball players are accustomed to playing at amazing venues -- they're one of the sport's greatest perks. Among other sites in her long career, Misty May-Treanor has played on a cruise ship in a Norwegian port, in the Alps, in front of Barcelona's National Museum and under the Eiffel Tower.
"The Eiffel Tower is pretty cool. But for the queen to let us play on their grounds? That's special," she said. "I thank them for letting us play there because I think we have the best venue in the Olympics. And the coolest. It's so unique. You get dropped off here and the guards are out there on their horses. I want to take a picture every day. Where do you see things like this? It takes you back in time."
Well, it takes you back in time if you can imagine Queen Victoria wearing a bikini. (Whoops -- sorry for planting that image in your mind.)
That beach volleyball is played here now isn't a complete break with tradition. Back in the reign of Henry VIII, jousting tournaments were held here.
Back then, I imagine there might have been May pole dancers. Now, there are the Horse Guard Parade Dancers, a set of a dozen or so young men and women, wearing 1960s beach attire, who race onto the court to perform during breaks in the sets. The crowd, naturally, goes nuts for this. They also do the wave.
All this, plus superbly athletic women in bikinis and equally fit men in shorts and tank tops, Brazilian fans and matches running from 9 a.m. to about midnight? It's the best party London has seen since The Beatles played on top of the Apple studios.
It's also enough to either give the queen the vapors or a reason to finally crack a smile.
"I think maybe she will come out and watch," U.S. volleyball player Sean Rosenthal said. "That would be great. I hope to see them come out here, and if they want to watch, that would be great for the sport."
That would be great. Especially if the queen started dancing to the "Party Rock Anthem."
"I'm so glad they invited us here," Walsh said. "For them to open up this area to us, I hope they're very pleased and very proud because it's the most beautiful venue I've ever played in. I think it's the most beautiful venue at this Olympics. I'm so excited. We got lucky."
Added five-time Olympian Nat Cook: "I'm very proud to be a beach volleyballer playing in such an iconic location. Our sport just continues to be the showcase of the Olympic Games. Ever since it started in Atlanta and moved to Bondi Beach [in Sydney], it's just gotten bigger and bigger."
I don't know how Rio de Janeiro can possibly top this, but I do know this. If Rio does, I want to be ESPN's full-time beach volleyball writer in 2016.