LONDON — The venue for London Olympic beach volleyball is surreal: Centuries-old buildings surrounding Horse Guards Parade, providing a stodgy backdrop for the raucous party music, costumed fans and sand-court action.
Not to mention the cheerleaders. Which is difficult, when that's all anyone wants to mention.
During breaks in the action, over a dozen dancers in swimwear — some women in bikinis, all the men topless — rush out onto the court to gyrate, titillate and keep the crowd fired up.
[ Photos: The Olympic beach volleyball cheerleaders ]
They do the conga. They throw beach balls. It may not be what Heracles had in mind when he christened the games as "Olympic," but it is a great excuse to have scantily clad people dance to Katy Perry's "California Gurls" during a gold-medal match.
"I think that the seed for this creative was planted when [the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games] decided to put beach volleyball, a relatively new and certainly very lively sport, on Horse Guards Parade, which as you know is the heart of ceremonial London," said James O'Brien, LOCOG's Head of Sport Presentation of Olympics.
"So immediately we had the juxtaposition of old and new. I took that and ran with it."
[ Also: Unlimited beer at beach volleyball venue ]
The beach volleyball cheerleaders are the kitschiest, but they aren't the only in-venue entertainment at the London Games, which have gone great lengths to liven up their arenas and stadiums.
And by "liven up" we mean "hire someone who works with Simon Cowell."
The first step for O'Brien in the run-up to the Games was working with the IOC and the international federations to categorize the events into five themes:
"World Stage, Heritage, Prime Time, Energy and Extreme."
That allowed his team to tailor the music and entertainment for each venue. The London Games' Sport Presentation Department is a facet of its Sport Department, so personalizing the entertainment was done with the sports as the focus, rather than having it shoe-horned in.
Locog's head of sport presentation and music James O'Brien has compiled a massive playlist of over 2000 songs, which will appeal to the thousands of spectators from all over the world and will be played throughout the stadiums and different venues over the Olympic period. These 2000-plus songs have been placed into a series of five themes to provide the most appropriate sound platform for everything from archery to BMX biking.
Thus, more genteel sports such as tennis will be soundtracked by classical music and well known songs by established acts. This is the Heritage strand. Sports such as gymnastics and swimming, which traditionally attract family audiences, will be accompanied by music from the kind of mainstream acts that crop up on big TV shows like the X Factor or The Voice. This is the Prime Time theme. The Extreme strand will feature more dance-orientated music to score events such as canoeing and BMX. Urban music will be the cheerleader for sports such as basketball and cycling. The remaining 300-plus songs on the playlist will be tagged World Stage and these will big stadium rockers used to promote blue ribbon track and field events within the stadium at Stratford.
Four London Olympic sports have cheerleaders: Beach Volleyball, Indoor Volleyball, Basketball and Handball.
Those four sports, along with boxing, also have "Street Dance" teams performing at their venues before events and during breaks in the action.
But there are some Olympic sports that don't exactly scream "cheerleaders" or "beach volleyball" — so they get "ballet." Those sports are Fencing, Artistic Gymnastics and Rhythmic Gymnastics.
(Cheerleaders at a gymnastics event do seem a tad redundant.)
But it's the beach volleyball cheerleaders that have gotten the most attention, with the Daily Mail writing that they contribute to "a sort of Hugh Hefner bikini Olympics crossed with a ridiculous game show."
LOCOG hired Phil Heyes, who directs Simon Cowell's hit "The X Factor" in the U.K., as a choreographer along with Aicha McKenzie; Zoe Stevenson as wardrobe; and Debbie Dannell doing "Glam Squad" duties (i.e., hair and makeup). This group worked with O'Brien in doing the creative for the MTV Europe Music Awards, which he produced for 12 years.
One critical decision the team made before the Olympics began: Getting the men involved in the beach volleyball cheer team.
Rather than alienating part of the crowd with a bevy of women in bikinis, the organizers added some beefcake to level the playing field — if not balance out the numbers.
"This immediately changed the tone and made it more playful," said O'Brien.
Which is the point, of course: To take Olympic events and make them a spectacle for those paying top dollar for tickets; and to make the London Games as memorable as possible for tourists and others eager to pass judgment on their amusement.
[ Photos: Decoding beach volleyball hand signals ]
Cheerleaders might not be everyone's Olympic ideal; heck, there are those who still bristle about visible sponsorship at venues, let alone gyrating eye candy. But having watched the reaction from fans inside the Horse Guards Parade, it's clear they're a hit with the customers. (The unlimited beer sales probably help.)
"I think that we've done a great job in creating entertainment that complements the sport and can be enjoyed by the whole family," said O'Brien. "We just want everyone to have the best day they can possibly have."
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