On The Ground: Three days, three historic venues … game, set, match

Three days, three historic venues. That was my goal this week.

I wanted to hit Lord’s Cricket Grounds, Royal Artillery Barracks and Horse Guards Parade for archery, shooting and beach volleyball, respectively.

The idea of going to see archery or shooting never occurred to me until I got here and heard all the talk among Olympic executives about the history of their venues.
China may have had its fancy new Bird’s Nest and multi-color Water Cube, but it didn’t have a single venue like London. Nothing had history adding an extra layer of texture to the competition on display. It’s what has made London a truly unique host, and the organizers deserve credit for taking advantage of it.

Draw, Release.

Lord's Cricket Ground
Archery was my first stop. Lord’s Cricket Ground is 197 years old and is considered the world’s home of cricket, but it was converted into an archery venue for the Olympics. The move surprised a lot of Londoners because the club that runs the venue is very conservative and didn’t even admit women until 1999. But the decision to hold archery there was a great one.

London organizers set up stands made of scaffolding and wrapped in purple tarps in the middle of the green grounds. Archers stand with their backs to a Victorian pavilion and let rip their volley toward targets set up 76 yards away.

Not being a fan of cricket, the magic of the place was lost on me, but the history wasn’t. I passed a plaque outside the grounds that read, “Stones laid in 1889.” It was older than Fenway, older than Wrigley, older than the oldest venues in the U.S.

Pull, Bang.

Shooting at the Royal Artillery Barracks
The next day I went to shooting at the Royal Artillery Barracks. The venue dates back to 1716 when two artillery companies were authorized at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. The barracks were opened in 1775, right around the start of the Revolutionary War.

Just like Lord’s, there were temporary stands wrapped in purple looking out onto a wide, open, grass field. A semicircle where the competitors stood looked out across the field. A high purple house on one end and low house sat on the other, launching skeet into the air at different heights.

The barracks stand off in the distance to the right of competition. They have the longest unbroken building façade in the U.K., and the brick face of the building stretches on forever.

It’s a funny sport, shooting. It’s been part of the Olympics since 1896. The skeet competition is punctuated by shouts of “Pull,” a three-second pause, the blast of a 12-gauge and then the explosion of an orange clay disc.

Band of Lifeguards perform at the shooting event.
Vincent Hancock of Eatonton, Ga., blew past the competition on the day I was there, nailing 25 out of 25 targets on his final round. When an Italian did the same thing an hour earlier, he roared and pumped his fist like he’d just sank a birdie putt to win the Masters.

The in-venue entertainment there was unlike any I’ve seen in sport. Between rounds, a 25-person military brass band named Band of the Lifeguards, one of two mounted bands, showed up decked out in red coats and silver, Victorian-era helmets topped by flowing golden string that looked like a ponytail. They had spurs on the heels of their boots.

The band has been around since it escorted King Charles II into London in 1660. Now that’s old.

Parade. Set. Spike.

By far the best venue in London is Horse Guards Parade, which is playing host to beach volleyball. In fact, it’s the best venue and sports experience I’ve ever had at the Olympics.

To get to the venue in St. James Park, you pass under Admiralty Arch and walk down The Mall — a wide vacant street flanked by alternating red, white and blue Union Jack flags and white Olympic flags.

Beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade
Organizers set up temporary scaffolding and a sand pit in a small patch of the park sandwiched between Admiralty House, an 18th century government building where JFK met with British officials, and the prime minister’s home at No. 10 Downing. The London Eye lights up the banks of the Thames in the distance.

All of that creates a bizarre backdrop to the most raucous — and late night — Olympic venues I’ve ever visited. London 2012 hired bikini-clad dancers to prance around with beach balls during Katy Perry’s “California Girl,” and roam the stands forcing men in suits to do the conga. In the concession area outside the stands, men drink beer and complain that the players aren’t wearing bikinis because it’s too cold.

And then there’s the Scottish emcee, who’s perhaps the best announcer I’ve ever heard in sports. He has patented phrases for when the sand is raked between sets — “It’s time for the historic art of sand raking,” or “It’s rakey, rakey time” — and has a running list of jokes:

“I just called the office and spoke to the boss. The good news is: You’re taking the tie off tomorrow.”

“You’re going to be out of here by 3 a.m., but look at the bright side, you’ll save on hotel room”

His underlying message is simple: “Let’s party. You’re in the mood.”

And that’s what beach volleyball has become — a giant party on the doorstep of the British government. A celebration of new sport at another site that’s very old.

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