It’s fair to say that beach volleyball was a hit at the London 2012 Olympic Games. I am biased, since I spent my summer working as a volunteer at Horse Guards Parade, this Games’ venue for beach volleyball. But the sellout crowds truly created a great atmosphere at most matches, even those starting at 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. The sport’s governing body, the FIVB, has interpreted this as a strong sign that the Olympic Games will leave a big legacy in the U.K., that the country is both building up a fan base and encouraging people to take up the sport.
But I’m not so sure.
The sand of the center court as well as the practice and warm-up courts is going to be used to build recreational courts around the capital. But that philanthropic act is a consequence of a harsher reality: Beach volleyball’s presence in the heart of London was only going to be temporary. Within hours of the final ball being hit over the net, the process of disassembling the main stands had started. Within days, the Horse Guards Parade and nearby St. James’s Park will be back to normal, save for a few patches of grass scarred by tents and heavy machinery that will take a little longer to recover.
Now, I will hold up my hands and readily admit that I didn’t know my side-outs from my bump passes two weeks ago. I have been lucky, though. Instead of standing outside venues directing human traffic like some Olympic volunteers, I was assigned to press operations and given the enviable task of being one of the first people to interview the athletes as they came off the court after their matches. This also meant that it was effectively in my job description to sit in the stadium and watch hour after hour of the sport so that I could ask the right questions when the time came.
Bit by bit, then, I picked up the sport. I learned not just the key rules, but also the tactics, the characters and backgrounds of the top players. Would I watch it again, even pay to attend? Yes. Do I want to hit the sand courts when I get back to the Farm? Yes.
I do, however, lack one important ingredient that may be required: a ball. After the event treated the crowds to exciting world-class action on the courts and talked repeatedly about the legacy that beach volleyball wanted to leave in the U.K., the official shop within the venue didn’t actually sell balls. In fact, I think only one of the London 2012 shops did. Not only was the shop miles away, but since it was in the Olympic Park it required a ticket just to visit. (I could be wrong, though; it might just be that no Olympic shop sold balls.) None of the newly inducted beach volleyball fans were going to leave the event with the sole piece of equipment that would allow them to start playing immediately.
I’m not so sure, though, whether they would have started playing even if they had been able to buy a ball. I’m not so sure that they really came to watch the action or even left understanding it.
The presence of skimpily dressed players, especially the women, is often seen as the main reason that people show up to watch this sport for the first time, and it undoubtedly helped pack the stadium in London. While that might not be the best way to build up a serious beach volleyball following, it does serve the most basic need to get people in the stands and expose them to this sport.
From that point on, though, the organizers missed a trick. Instead of the odd piece of informative commentary between points—even just stating the score might have helped—spectators were treated to music and the occasional troupe of dancers. They were encouraged, too, to join in with Mexican waves or conga lines while the match went on unobserved below. At first this was undoubtedly fun, but as time went by it began to grate more and more. (If I have to watch one more person do the conga in the next few weeks I might just lose the will to live.) The antics left the impression that it wasn’t the action on court that was capturing people’s hearts and minds.
Maybe I’ve got this wrong, though. The very last match between the gold-medal-winning German team of Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann and the Brazilian duo of Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti was a perfect example of everything that is right with beach volleyball. For a golden hour all the other distractions became irrelevant and you could feel 15,000 sets of eyes focused on the sand. And hopefully, the memories of that match will last long after the sand is gone.
Tom Taylor looks forward to playing some beach volleyball when he’s back in the U.S. Hit him up for a pickup game at email@example.com.