Historic Venues Link Competitors to Their Royal Roots

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Queen Elizabeth II's granddaughter Zara Phillips won a silver medal for her equestrian skills on Tuesday — the first-ever Olympic medal for the British royal family. But even before that, the 2012 Games were already the world's most regal. From palaces to parks and castles to jousting grounds, many of London's sporting venues have a stately history stretching back hundreds of years. Keep your eyes open and if you're lucky, you might just spot a prince or princess popping out to cheer on Team GB.


Sports to watch: Equestrian and modern pentathlon

Royal connection: Greenwich's royal history stretches back to the 13th century, when King Edward I had a hunting lodge near the river Thames. In 1447, the Palace of Placentia was built on the same site and remained the main royal palace for more than 200 years. King Henry VIII was born here, as was his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. Stroll toward the Royal Observatory and look for the stump of an old oak behind a cast-iron fence. It is reputed to be the very tree in which the young Elizabeth played as a girl.

Hampton Court Palace

Sports to watch: Road cycling

Royal connection: Another palace enjoyed by King Henry VIII, who seized it from Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. Olympic cyclists whizzing past won't have time to admire its elegant red brick walls, sumptuous rooms and famously tricky hedge maze, but they might time themselves on its elaborate astronomical clock, which has been ticking off the seconds for nearly 400 years. Sports fans should visit Hampton Court's "real tennis" court, where they can imagine themselves playing the indoor game from which modern tennis evolved.


Sports to watch: Rowing and canoe sprint

Royal connection: By far the imposing royal residence, Windsor is a massive complex of towers, battlements, chapels and state apartments. A short stroll from the Thames and the Eton Dorney Olympic rowing center, Windsor Castle has housed monarchs almost continuously for the last 700 years — but they did not always remain here willingly. Charles I was held prisoner here during the English Civil War.

Horse Guard's Parade

Sports to watch: Beach volleyball

Royal connection: What would Henry VIII have thought of bronzed Olympians bouncing balls around the "tiltyard" of his beloved Palace of Whitehall? In the 16th century, tournaments here were much more ferocious, featuring jousting and cock fighting. Most of the sprawling palace here burned down in 1698. These days, Whitehall is the site of government buildings, while Horse Guards Parade is the scene of the annual Trooping of the Colour ceremony, a military pageant on horseback that celebrates the British monarch's official birthday in June. (The Queen's real birthday, in April, is too wet and windy for a proper parade.)

Hyde Park

Sports to watch: Triathlon and marathon swimming

Royal connection: Another of Henry VIII's "acquisitions," Hyde Park was originally set up as his private hunting grounds. The first royal to live here was William III — who moved to Kensington Palace to escape the polluted air of Westminster — and Princess Diana was one of the latest. A recent refit has transformed the palace into a magical experience that is half museum and half theater, the complete opposite of a stuffy stately home. Another unmissable royal sight in Hyde Park is the glittering Albert Memorial, the statue Queen Victoria commissioned to memorialize her dead husband.

The Mall

Sports to watch: Cycling and marathon

Royal connection: Could the London Organising Committee have made things any easier for the Queen? She can sit by a window in Buckingham Palace and watch the world's best cyclists and marathon runners race to a finish just outside the palace gates. Of course, Her Majesty doesn't have to leave home to take exercise herself. There are tennis courts in the palace's garden and the northwest pavilion, designed as a conservatory for growing plants, was converted into a swimming pool before World War I.

Other royal Olympians

Zara Phillips might be the first British royal to win an Olympic medal, but other royal houses have been adding to the family silver for decades.

* 100 years ago, Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia took a bronze for Germany in the same team equestrian event at the Stockholm Games.

* Crown Prince Olaf, later King Olav V, of Norway won a gold medal for sailing in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. His son, the current King Harald V, sailed for Norway in three Olympics but never won a medal.

* King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his wife Queen Sofia both competed in Olympic sailing contests — but for different countries. Sofia was a reserve in the 1960 Games for her native Greek sailing team.

* Phillips' mother, Princess Anne (who also competed in equestrian events), was the only female competitor in the 1976 Montreal Olympics not to have to submit to a gender test. As she was the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, the test was deemed unnecessary.

By Mark Harris

Top: Horse Guards Parade, once home to the Palace at Whitehall, is the site of the beach volleyball competition — and one of many royal connections at the 2012 Olympics. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Right: Zara Phillips, granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II, no doubt felt comfortable competing in a royal setting during equestrian events at London's Greenwich Park. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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