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Olympic beach volleyball venue brings party atmosphere to London's Horse Guards Parade

08/01/2012 06:34 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - At her regular job covering Wimbledon as a studio host for British TV, Charlie Webster hears a lot of "Quiet, please" and polite reminders for fans to turn off their mobile phones.

For the past week at the Horse Guards Parade, her goal has been to keep things rowdy.

Webster is a presenter at what has become the iconic venue of the 2012 Olympics, the beach volleyball stadium with a view of the Big Ben clock tower and the London Eye. She is part sideline reporter, part host, part cheerleader and full-time party — all with the ambition of keeping the fans involved in a sport that doesn't have a big history in Britain.

"My job is to make sure they know what the crowd rules are," Webster said this week during a break in the thrice-daily sessions on the sand. "I was at Wimbledon three weeks ago. The rules there are obviously very, very, very different."

"The British stadium crowd is used to being quiet during play. What I want to make sure is that the crowd knows they can cheer because that helps the players," said Webster, a former model and runner who remains an amateur boxer. "You see how much it helps them when the crowd's behind them."

The team that the fans see and hear consists of Webster and commentators Graeme Easton and Andrew Longworth, who offer information and comic relief during the matches. There are others, too, including a disc jockey who pipes in peppy music — the Benny Hill theme is a favourite — and a dance team that kicks and jiggles during breaks.

It's just what the fans would expect at a beach party.

And what the players have become accustomed to.

"Silence is more difficult, actually," said Dutch player Reinder Nummerdor, a two-time Olympian and longtime veteran of the international tour.

During matches, Webster can be seen wandering the stands for interviews — shown on the videoboards — with the many celebrities that have stopped by to see the London Games' sexiest sport. London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prince Albert of Monaco made an appearance (though Paul McCartney and members of the U.S. men's basketball team went incognito).

Easton, who is an emcee for football and rugby matches in Scotland, explains what's going on in the match, all the while knowing he is talking to a crowd that might have never seen beach volleyball before. He gives the score, relevant statistics and the cues — "On your feet! Make some noise!" — one might see on the scoreboard at a typical NBA stadium.

"That's the thing about the British," Longworth said. "We're very good at being orderly and following directions."

A comedy writer who has lent his voice to children's cartoons and Carlsberg beer commercials, Longworth takes over during the time-outs with one-liners and gags like telling the crowd to keep it down because the prime minister, whose residence is next door, has an important meeting or a nap scheduled.

This is inevitably met with boos that turn into cheers when Longworth delivers the punch line: "He's got no chance!"

"The crowd knows it's a party," Easton said, "and the music makes a heck of a difference."

Longworth also invents credentials for the crew that rakes the sand, saying they are world class and claiming that they have trained for 16 years for this gig. But he also expresses a respect for the work that all the volunteers do.

"We try to have a bit of fun, but not at the players' expense. We have fun with the rakers, but the games would be nothing without them," Longworth said.

"This being the United Kingdom, we don't take ourselves too seriously," he said, "unless we're losing."

FIVB Beach Volleyball Director Angelo Squeo said the goal of the game presentation is just like it says on the ubiquitous signs around London: To inspire. For the international governing body, that means spreading the beach volleyball bug in a country that didn't have much of a program before being awarded the 2012 Olympics.

They started soon after Beijing, casting and training the dance team — choreographer Aicha McKenzie has worked with Madonna, Rihanna and Kanye West — obtaining the rights to the music and even choosing the purple colour surrounding the courts to give the royal venue a royal feel.

"I think we have achieved our goal to attract spectators who didn't have a big background in beach volleyball," Squeo said. "But the presentation has to add value to the entire show and never take away from the sport."

That's why the music stops when the ball is served and Easton also sprinkles in statistics — the speed of a serve, a player's international ranking — along with the cheerleading. When a player is given a yellow card or an unusual rule is invoked, he explains it for the crowd.

But just as important is monitoring the energy of the crowd and giving it a boost when needed.

"They don't have too much beach volleyball in the U.K., but they really got into it," said British volleyballer Steve Grotowski, a first-time Olympian who qualified through the spot reserved for the host nation.

Even though he and partner John Garcia-Thompson failed to win a set, Grotowski called the Olympics the highlight of his career.

"You can only explain it by experiencing it," he said after losing his third and final match on Wednesday. "It was worth all the work I put into it."

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