Greece's Vasiliki Arvaniti and Maria Tsiartsiani go for the ball… (Diego Azubel / EPA )
LONDON — — In basically the backyard of austere 10 Downing Street, where British Prime Minister David Cameron officially resides in a stately executive manor, a raucous block party rocked his neighborhood Saturday night.
Queen Elizabeth celebrates birthdays on the same grounds, but even if QEII forever became a Bond girl at Friday night's Olympic opening ceremony, I bet none of her bashes ever resembled the Olympic beach volleyball games here.
Prince Harry's, maybe, but not the queen's.
Photos: London Olympics: Beach volleyball
They danced the conga during timeouts. They blared music from Chelsea Dagger and the Beach Boys and LMFAO. A bloke with a microphone constantly exhorted the crowd, which included men in togas starting the wave. Female dancers in bikinis entertained fans by gyrating and rolling in the sand.
"This place has gone bonkers tonight, hasn't it, everybody?" the public-address announcer asked as the theme song to"The Benny Hill Show"played.
Technically, the site is a 15,000-seat stadium at Horse Guards Parade where the U.S. men's and women's beach volleyball teams opened play with victories over South Africa and Australia, respectively. Realistically, it was"Baywatch"meets Big Ben at the Olympics and makes him blush. Over the next fortnight, somebody might consider covering the London Eye, which overlooks the sand.
How were baseball and softball eliminated as Olympic sports before the 2012 Games while beach volleyball was bumped into a prime-time television slot back home? Why do you think the pretty, ponytailed U.S. team of Misty May-Treanorand Kerri Walsh-Jennings didn't start its match until the ridiculous hour of 11 p.m. locally?
Everybody knows the answer to both questions is money.
Feel free to divvy up blame between NBC and the International Olympic Committee for the ratings monster they have created since beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996 — or credit them if you enjoy a recreational sport loosening up the Olympics. Indeed, it can be enjoyable to watch, and this was a fun, frolicking way to spend a Saturday night abroad.
The enthusiasm created indelible impressions on the athletes too.
"When you hit a good dig, you would hear a roar, and it kind of unsettled me a bit," said American Jake Gibb, who with partner Sean Rosenthal won, 21-10, 21-11. "As we were playing, we'd hear Big Ben ringing. Wow."
Walsh-Jennings searched in vain for the right words.
"I'm in awe of where I am right now," she said she and May-Treanor won, 21-18, 21-19.
Still, the moment felt more like one that comes around every summer weekend than every four years. The game requires skill and strategy but still always felt more about the show than the score, like the scripted reality TV it essentially is.
Nothing illustrated that more than the suspense surrounding whether May-Treanor and Walsh-Jennings would wear bikinis on a night temperatures dipped below 60 degrees. To the chagrin of network executives who put eye candy on the late-night menu, they didn't — opting for long-sleeve blue pullovers on top of red bikini bottoms.
"We warmed up with pants on, but Kerri was like, 'I'm getting hot,'" May-Treanor said. "So we took them off."
Meanwhile, the Aussie women surely sent the TV folks reaching for the antacid tablets by wearing what amounted to dark yoga pants and white short-sleeve shirts. The combination had a very 2 p.m. first-serve feel to it.
It serves them right. The emphasis on bikinis and prime-time TV perhaps benefits the popularity of the game but not the integrity of the sport. To objectify female Olympians diminishes their athletic ability.
What a contrast Saturday's message was to the one delivered at Friday's opening ceremony, when U.S. flag-bearer Mariel Zagunis led a team that included, for the first time, more women than men.
As fans finally filed out of the stadium just before Big Ben struck midnight, the loudspeaker played Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting."
True, but this should have been a day at the beach.