LONDON — In a solemn, dignified line, the Household Cavalry rode down the street. The men sat atop their horses resplendent in ceremonial uniforms – dark coats, red coats, armour, medals, helmets, swords. They did not speak. They did not smile. There was a whinny of a horse … and a roar of a crowd.
At precisely 11 a.m., the clock chimed, and the changing of the guard began. The daily ritual would take about 30 minutes. At the same time, across the street and on the other side of the landmark Horse Guards building, Canadians Josh Binstock and Martin Reader began their beach volleyball match. The speakers blared Queen's "We Will Rock You."
Here, the guards moved stiffly or stood as still as statues. There, a dance team of bikini-clad women (and three men in board shorts) gyrated to Miami Sound Machine's "Conga."
Come on, shake your body, baby, do the Conga. I know you can't control yourself any longer …
"The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers," wrote Boris Johnson in the Telegraph, pointing out that "there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade'' – and that they are "glistening like wet otters."
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Um, wow. Johnson is the mayor of London.
There is no question this is the coolest, craziest venue of the Olympics. Even after Monday's 2-0 loss to Norway's Tarjei Viken Skarlund and Martin Spinnangr – dropping the Canadians to 1-1, setting up their final preliminary match Wednesday against Brazil's Pedro Cunha and Ricardo Santos – Binstock and Reader couldn't help but rave about it. This is unlike any other place they've played.
"It's not as hot as the rest of them, but it's the best by far," Reader said. "All the amenities are amazing - the sound system, the music choice, the people."
What would be the Canadian equivalent of this? Dumping sand on the lawn on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, playing with the Peace Tower in the background? Even that wouldn't come close.
There were tournaments here long ago, but in the time of Henry VIII, it wasn't beach volleyball. It was jousting. The current Horse Guards building was constructed in the 1750s and became the headquarters of the British Army. When Queen Victoria found the guards shirking their duty one afternoon in the 1894, she ordered the Household Cavalry to parade at 4 p.m. every day for 100 years. The order still stands, even though it's now just a tradition, a tourist attraction.
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Climb the stands of Centre Court and take in the view. It's a panorama of history – too many beautiful, significant old buildings to mention, with glimpses of the London Eye and Big Ben. Walk over to Trafalgar Square, and you arrive at the Canadian High Commission. Walk around the corner, and you arrive at 10 Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister. Walk through St. James' Park, and you arrive at Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen.
That's the magnificent part. Here's the bonkers part: In a town full of statues to military and political heroes who died long before this sport was born in Southern California in the 1920s, there are now larger-than-life temporary statues of "Beach Volleyball Heroes" like American Kerri Walsh, who is going for her third gold in three Games with partner Misty May-Treanor. There is sand where there is no sea. There is pop music, and there are men with muscles and women in bikinis.
At an Olympics being panned for empty seats at some other venues in the early days of these Summer Games, the stands were full with 15,000 fans on a crisp, sunny Monday morning. Apparently people like the view, in more ways than one.
"It's phenomenal," said Canadian fan Michael Macerollo. "They definitely could have gone with a far more obscure location, but the fact that they put it so central just makes it out of this world."
Macerollo, Martin Dearing and Jordan Aronovitch grew up with Binstock in Richmond Hill, Ont. Aronovitch called them "extended brothers." They came to Monday's match carrying beers and wearing custom T-shirts for the occasion. Dearing had a hockey helmet and a Canadian flag for a cape.
They had a blast Saturday when Binstock and Reader won their opening match against Great Britain's John Garcia-Thompson and Steve Grotowski. They kept standing. They kept cheering. That cape kept flapping in the faces of their hosts.
"You'd be tickling the nose of the guy behind you," Dearing said.
[Slideshow: Crazy fans in London ]
The only shame of this circus is that some might forget this is an actual athletic competition. This might be a made-for-TV event that started in 1996 in Atlanta, scoring ratings with sex appeal. But the players take it seriously. Binstock and Reader are not beach bums.
"They have not been drinking any pints with us," Macerollo said. "We've been drinking extra for them."
Binstock and Reader would wake up every day about 6:30 a.m. and wouldn't get back home until about 7:30 p.m. after going to the gym, training on the sand and dealing with their Toronto-area commute. They had to fight to get to London.
First, they had to secure a spot for their country, playing with another Canadian team at the Continental Cup in Mexico. Then they had to secure that spot for themselves by beating that other Canadian duo – Ben Saxton and Chris Redmann – in a match in Toronto. They qualified July 7. They were the last athletes to make the Canadian Olympic team.
[Slideshow: Josh Binstock and Martin Reader]
A former hockey player, Binstock compared them to the Los Angeles Kings, who made the playoffs as an eighth seed and won the Stanley Cup this year. They were not happy with their performance Monday. "Not up to our calibre," Binstock said. But they remained confident.
Yeah, they have to joust with the Brazilians now, and the Brazilians are tough. But Binstock and Reader took them to three sets the last time they met. And even if the Canadians lose Wednesday night, they won't necessarily be out of it.
"We're comfortable with the pressure," Binstock said, "because we had to play with that even to get in the playoffs, so to speak."
As Dearing, Macerollo and Aronovitch stood outside Centre Court on Monday morning, another Canadian fan stopped them to take their picture. They locked arms, smiled and shouted, "WE LIKE GOLD!"
Gold? Here? Now that would be magnificent. And bonkers.
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