Bikinis, beer, Beach Boys music and Big Ben provide an incongruous setting for beach volleyball in the pouring rain smack in the middle of Horse Guards Parade.
London weather, which is returning to its usual drizzly, chilly pattern, won’t deter fun-loving fans or scantily clad players at the 2012 Olympics’ most boisterous venue, a spot usually reserved for stoic royal guardsmen on obedient horses.
For two weeks, it’s a beach in the center of this dense city, flanked by historic buildings, the prime minister’s offices, Winston Churchill’s underground war rooms, a statue of Lord Mountbatten and London’s poshest park, St. James.
Even if the skies are gray and the downpours drenching, as they were Sunday, the matches will continue because neither players nor Britons are deterred by the elements.
“If it’s raining, hailing or we’re freezing our bums off, we carry on,” said Julie Meireles, a nurse from Ayr, Scotland.
Her friend, Amy Fitzgerald, a nurse in London, lamented that England “hasn’t had a proper summer since 2006.” Three months of record rainfall preceding the Olympics was followed by a week-long hot spell. Variable weather has returned.
“My heart sinks when on a big occasion our weather is bloody awful, like it was for the queen’s silver jubilee,” Meireles said.
The players don’t mind. Their tour includes stops in Switzerland, Austria and Finland, and the Finns are known to say that there is no such thing as wrong weather, only the wrong clothing.
The British pair of Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin wore their red bikinis throughout their 2-1 victory over Canada. When the temperature drops below 68 degrees players are allowed to don crop tops and leggings, but The Sun, a cheeky London tabloid, asked Dampney and Mullin to promise not to cover up in a recent article, so as not to disappoint fans, particularly when the camera zooms onto the hand signals they flash behind their bikini bottoms. A Sun reporter brought a thermometer to the match and the temperature did dip, but the players kept their promise. Mullin, a milky-skinned lass from Scotland, said the wet conditions only affect their hand sets.
“There’s been a lot of hype about beach volleyball,” she said. “People may come for the appearance of the players, but they leave having learned how athletic it is.”
Dampney and Mullin played two Montreal natives who grew up skating, sledding, skiing and snowboarding.
Cold? What cold?
“Well, the sand was cold,” Marie-Andree Lessard said. “My feet were frozen. But the ambiance warmed us up.”
The venue announcer kept up a constant patter between points and played loud cuts of music, such as Queen’s We Will Rock You and the Beach Boys’ I Get Around. During timeouts, a dance crew in swimsuits did the Macarena.
The rain was at its heaviest when the women’s cycling road race ended with a sprint finish nearby. Fans opened umbrellas or put plastic shopping bags over their heads. The ball boys and girls toweled off the volleyballs. This is the home of Wimbledon, after all, where tennis was played for more than a century before TV demanded a roof over Centre Court.
Soggy fans weren’t grumbling. It was a beach party. They were drinking, cheering and drinking. From the upper stands you can see London’s rooftops, clock towers, spires, domes and chimneys and imagine you’ve got Mary Poppins’ aerial view.
Prime Minister David Cameron has joked that he and his staff were looking forward to a prime view from the upper floors of 10 Downing Street, but alas the bleachers impede it.
Prince Harry and Mayor Boris Johnson have visited the venue, with Johnson calling the sport “magnificent and bonkers.”
“There are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the Horse Guards Parade immortalized by Canaletto,” Johnson, a Classics expert, blogged. “They are glistening like wet otters and the water is splashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers.”
Steve Grotowski, who lost to Brazil in his second pool match Monday night, was born in London and competes for Great Britain but grew up getting addicted to the game on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. He graduated from Northeast High. So he’s got both the genes and the sun-kissed skin for anything. His partner grew up in Mallorca.
“It’s an outdoor sport, and when you’re running around, you don’t notice the weather,” he said. “Plus, we’re in this amazing, historic venue. The training courts in the park are special.
“I have a lot of heritage and family here, so I am thrilled.”
Two-time defending Olympic champs Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the United States., who improved to 2-0 Monday night, won in Beijing during a steady rain.
They’re planning to win more converts here.
“It’s not like California, but it’s what we were expecting,” said poncho-attired Judy Burlingham of Newport Beach, Calif., with her husband, Bob, at their eighth Olympics. They are friends with swimmer Jason Lezak. “If anyone knows rain, it’s the British.”
Even Chaucer wrote about shoures soote, sweet showers, and made England’s weather sound poetic.