IT WAS, Tony Blair claimed, going to be his favourite moment of the 2012 Olympics, watching the beach volleyball staged in Horse Guards Parade, and, as MIKE ROWBOTTOM finds out, Britain is doing its best to discover some talent worthy of the setting
A DAY in the life of an Australian beach volleyball coach in Britain.
You turn up at the indoor sand court - there's only one in the country, so you have to be in Bristol - and await an influx of towering young females [stipulated height 5ft 9in or taller] for the latest British Beach Volleyball Trials.
Promotional material has done its best to stress the urgency of the challenge at hand: "The clock is ticking to find the best GB Volleyball and Beach Volleyball talent ahead of the London Olympic Games of 2012…"
Now the clock ticks round to 9.30am and the would-be stars of London 2012 are ready to be put through their paces.
There are six of them, four of whom you already know.
By the end of the first morning's work, you have formed an impression of the group's potential.
Your impression is that none of these young hopefuls will make the Olympic grade.
If that sounds like a mildly depressing experience, then Matt Grinlaubs, whose experience it has been this week, manages to sound remarkably equable in the circumstances.
Even if his opening judgement - "There isn't any bright new talent" - is in the great tradition of tell-it-like-it-is Aussies.
Grinlaubs is one of the host of foreign coaches attracted to Britain's Olympic cause following the decision to award London the 2012 Games, his tenure guaranteed by a six-year contract.
As a former Olympian - he competed in the beach volleyball at the Sydney 2000 Games - Grinlaubs knows exactly what qualities are required to reach that level of competition, and the apparent failure of this most recent talent-trawling exercise has not diminished a sense of quiet confidence about his overall task.
"I'm confident we will qualify for 2012 in our own right"
"'I can't see us taking anyone on from this week, although maybe next week's trial for men will be a different story," said Grinlaubs, who previously worked as a performance manager with responsibility for developing Australian junior players.
"It was quite a small turn-out, which probably reflects the depth of the sport in this country.
"But I'm quite confident we will qualify in our own right for places at London 2012."
To do that, Britain will need to have pairings in the top 23 of the world rankings, a level Lucy Boulton and Denise Johns narrowly failed to achieve this year as they ended up missing Beijing by eight places.
Should any pairing fall short, however, they can claim the automatic qualification on offer to Britain as hosts of the next Games.
Thus Boulton and Johns have a great opportunity of emulating the achievement of Audrey Cooper and Amanda Glover, who became Britain's first and so far only volleyball representatives at any Olympics when they competed on the sand at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
That said, by 2012 they may be paired with two other leading women players, Shauna Mullin and Zara Dampney.
On the men's side, Steve Grotkowski and Greg Weaver are the clear number one pair right now having reached a world ranking of 52 in their second season together, while Robin Miedzybrodzki - Polish name, British born and bred - awaits a regular partner.
Qualifying by right will be a tall order for the British players - but then this is volleyball.
Not looking for freaks
As it happens, Grinlaubs is not on the look-out for freaks.
"I actually don't pay much attention to how tall people are to the top of their heads," he said.
"What's more important to me is what their reach is.
"People who are not so tall can do just as well provided they can jump well.
"When you hit the ball your arm is the highest point, and so reach is crucial.
"I am 1.93m high [6ft 4in] but my arm span is 2.03 [6ft 8in].
"Steve is 1.99 [6ft 6in] tall and Greg is 1.91 [6ft 3in], but their standing reach upwards is the same.
"People who are not so tall can do just as well provided they have good reach and can jump.
"If you are short you can still make an impression - but you better jump high!"
The jump to London 2012 appears too great for any of this week's triallists in Bristol, but should any of them be feeling downhearted they can take inspiration from Rachel Newton.
This 21-year-old sports science student at Loughborough University has forced her way into the British women's indoor volleyball squad after responding to the Sporting Giant talent-seeking initiative launched in February last year by five-times Olympic rowing champion Steven Redgrave [6ft 4in] on behalf of UK Sport.
Newton the Sporting Giant
The search for 16-25-year-olds who were either women over 5ft 11in tall or men over 6ft 3in provoked almost 4,000 respondees, of whom 52 went through to the second stage of assessment for joing Britain's handball, rowing or volleyball squads.
Newton, who only heard about the scheme a day before the entry deadline when a friend suggested she join her, originally thought she would be best suited to handball, having represented Loughborough at both basketball and football.
But the handball route never opened for her, and she soon discovered she was not a natural rower.
For a while it seemed the final conduit for this 6ft 1in athlete's Olympic ambition would also be blocked as she failed to make a decisive impression in the opening volleyball trials.
Newton, however, kept on returning, and after impressing a number of fringe British players during one training session she shared with them at their base in Sheffield she was asked to join the squad.
She now spends half her week near Sheffield, staying at her nan's house, in order to train three times a day at the English Institute of Sport.
Although she is still establishing herself in the squad, she is already casting half an eye at the irresistible lure of competing at the London 2012 Games.
"'That is definitely what I would like to do," she said.
"That's my overall aim."
That is the aim, too, for two other successful graduates from the Sporting Giants scheme - Josh Randall [6ft 5in] and Adam Smith [6ft 9in], who moved to 17th in the world junior beach volleyball rankings this year just three months after being put together.
Could Randall or Smith, or Randall and Smith, break through to compete in London 2012?
"They've got quite a gap to make up, but it's certainly not impossible," Grinlaubs responded.
"We had others at the trials who were as athletic as they were, but these boys just had a really good attitude.".
Coming from him, that counts as serious encouragement.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now freelancing and will be writing regularly for insidethegames