Can you dig it?

The combination of beach volleyball and 10 Downing Street leaves little to the imagination — and a lot to be desired

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's Olympic opening ceremony, I bet none of her bashes ever resembled an Olympic beach volleyball game here.

Prince Harry's maybe, but not the queen's.

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. Women dancers in bikinis entertained fans by gyrating and rolling in the sand.

Funny thing happened to me on the way to an Olympic event: I stumbled into an MTV taping of "Spring Break, Buckingham Palace." Seldom will you sense an atmosphere go from buttoned-down to pumped-up quicker than walking from Westminster Abbey into the unique venue at these Games.

"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.

If you wanted Olympic rivalry on Day 1, you found it in the pool where Ryan Lochte dominated Michael Phelps for the gold in the 400-meter individual medley. But those seeking Olympic revelry came to a manufactured beach plopped in the middle of iconic British landmarks where at times I wondered if I was still at the Games, let alone in stuffy ol' England.

Will they lead winners of beach-volleyball gold to a medal stand or keg stand?

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 nearby.

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, pony-tailed 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 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 recreation 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 after helping May-Treanor win 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 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 wearing bikinis and appearing on prime-time TV perhaps ultimately benefits the popularity of the game but not the integrity of the sport. To objectify female Olympians diminishes their athletic ability.

What a contrast that 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."

True, but this should have been a day at the beach.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
CHICAGO

More