LONDON — The chimes of Big Ben sound in the background to welcome midnight, and the lights shine against walls of history. There is the London Eye in the distance. There is 10 Downing Street. There is Westminster Abby.
All within a jump serve of each other.
Whitehall is a road in this central part of the city, and on it exists Horse Guards Parade and volumes worth of British lore, site of the annual ceremonies to celebrate the monarch’s birthday and the gate by which only Queen Elizabeth II can enter on her ride into Buckingham Palace.
King Henry VIII used to hold jousting tournaments on these grounds.
Now, women in bikinis play beach volleyball.
It began drizzling as Wednesday turned to Thursday, and all the domes and steeples and statues took on a rather ominous impression, and yet nothing could temper the energy resonating from thousands of people inside one of the most surreal venues in Olympic history.
Late at night, the prime minister sleeps beyond one end of the grandstand at his residence and the queen beyond the other end at hers. But in the middle, where 15,000 temporary seats have been erected and most are filled daily to watch volleyball in sand, people scream and music blares and cheerleaders wearing next to nothing dance between sets.
The final match doesn’t begin until 11 p.m., in the dark and cloudy shadow of Her Majesty turning in for the evening.
"It’s beautiful and has so much history," American star Misty May-Treanor said. "I mean, we’re welcomed by guards and horses every day. Who gets that? When I walk out at night, I’m like, ‘Look at that chandelier lit up in the window.’ We don’t see architecture like that much in California."
They mostly come to watch May-Treanor and beach partner Kerri Walsh, queens in their own right when it comes to this sport, here attempting to win a third straight gold medal. The duo never had dropped an Olympic set before doing so Wednesday to sisters Doris and Stefanie Schwaiger of Austria.
The Americans eventually won their final pool-play match 17-21, 21-8, 15-10, and, when it was over, U.S. men’s basketball players Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden began dribbling volleyballs around and spinning them on their fingers and taking pictures with a background of the stone building that once housed the offices of Winston Churchill.
That’s the sort of strange happenings this venue has attracted.
Yes, it’s mostly the sex appeal. It’s the idea that at any time of day, morning, afternoon, midnight with Big Ben chiming and a light rain falling, beautiful and fit women could be jumping around the sand in bikinis.
Why do you think this is the one event Prince Harry has confirmed he will attend for the medal round of the Olympics? It sure isn’t because of the short walk from his big house.
As the city’s own why-must-we-wait-until-11-for-the-pubs-to-open sort of guy, Mayor Boris Johnson wrote this of the female players in a local newspaper: "They are glistening like wet otters. As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalized by Canaletto. … The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers."
Boris is bonkers himself in an Oscar Goodman type of way, but he pens the truth. Men’s beach volleyball also is taking place here, but the women definitely drive the sport’s marketing bus. They have for some time now.
Even on such a night as Wednesday, when May-Treanor and Walsh chose to combat the chilly temperatures by playing in fitted black sweatsuits and the time grew later and later, fans didn’t leave until the final point was played. "If they tell us to take the clothes off in the late-night matches and play in the bathing suits, we would," said the 35-year-old May-Treanor, who will retire following the games.
She and Walsh get it. They know how to sell their skill and sport better than anyone here. They know that while bikinis might bring people out, talent usually will make them return.
They roll along, win and win and win again, a third gold in sight, and understand how special their beach relationship would be by standing atop a medals stand in this spot of sand.
"We’re trying to experience every essence of this place – the sights, the sounds, the smells," Walsh said. "I’m a history girl, and I love it. It’s the most special venue I have ever played in. To be in such an iconic area, it’s stuff we read about in books.
"It’s living history. It’s really cool."
It’s incredible, and so amazingly surreal.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.