Tom Degun: Beach volleyball could be the show stealer at London 2012
Sunday, 14 August 2011
I remember that wherever I went in the Southeast Asian city-state during Singapore 2010, people were talking about just one sport – the three-on-three basketball. After I could take it no longer, I decided to head along to the event myself to see what all the fuss was about.
I soon found myself hooked as I came across an adrenaline-packed game played on half a court with just one basketball hoop to aim at. It was the undoubted highlight of the Youth Olympics and something I was reminded of this week when I was hearing non-stop plaudits about how great the Olympic beach volleyball test event was.
I was fortunate enough to be a guest of Visa for a Friday afternoon/evening session at the venue and made my way along where I expected the competition - featuring 24 of the best teams in the world - to be rather over-hyped. I was glad to be proved very wrong.
As soon as I entered, everything about the set up seemed fun and fast-paced with hip hop, R&B and dance music blearing out of the speakers all around the venue. It is something that this area of Whitehall in central London doesn't often see but I was surprised how the shiny new arena blended into the charming old backdrop quite seamlessly.
Another thing I was pleased to see as I made my way to my seat was the sheer diversity of the crowd. There were young people, old people, people in fancy dress and people in suits who had come straight from work all blending to create a fantastic atmosphere.
The riots across the UK have taken the headlines in the capital, and indeed the world, this week and it would not be at all surprising if there had been a rather subdued air about the place but at the beach volleyball, you wouldn't have had a clue that anything at all sinister was going on in the outside world.
People were laughing, joking, drinking - sensibly I assure you - and cheering throughout the matches as they watched the world's top female volleyball players compete on the golden sand - 2,274 tonnes of Redhill 28 sand to be precise.
That brings me to the action itself. As a young red-blooded male, it was rather easy on the eye watching stunning girls compete on the sand as I looked on with a cold beer in hand!
But what I quickly realised was that the skill and athleticism required to play the sport at the top level is incredible and I found found myself standing and applauding with the rest of the crowd after some breath-taking points. But the highlight came as the sky began to grow dark and the floodlights turned on to create a postcard scene.
Incidentally, the GB pairing of Lucy Boulton and Denise Johns came on court just as the lights lit up the sand and the roar after every point of their match was so deafening that my ears have only just recovered. The GB pairing eventually just missed out on a podium spot as they lost the bronze medal match to Brazilian pair Taiana Lima and Vivian Danielle da Conceicao.
Gold went to the Brazilian pair of Lili Maestrini and Angela Vieira as they beat Americans April Ross and Jennifer Kessy in a match I'm sure the entire male crowd enjoyed. But despite the Brazilians dominating, the real winner was beach volleyball as the setting, the players and the audience combined to create an amazing atmosphere.
During the event, I managed to run into President of the British Volleyball Federation Richard Callicott who seemed to put his finger on why things were going so well.
"The great thing about this sport, unlike some of the other Olympic sports, is that the crowd can cheer and talk and laugh the whole time," he told me.
"There are some sports where there has to be complete silence throughout but in beach volleyball it is quite the opposite and the athletes feed off that. I think this event has shown just what a great spectator sport beach volleyball is and with this venue, I know it will be a major hit at the Olympics."
From my vantage point, the announcer who interviews the crowd between play is also a welcome addition, as are the dancers who regularly take to the sand.
The thing about the beach volleyball at the Olympics is that the test event was only a minor taster of things to come. Where the Visa FIVB Beach Volleyball International saw a 1,500 capacity temporary arena in place, the Olympics will have 15,000 capacity temporary arena in place meaning a bigger atmosphere and ultimately a better event.
It is just a feeling, but like the 3-on-3 basketball competition at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games, beach volleyball could be the show stealer at the London 2012 Olympics.
Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames