UK

London 2012: Beach volleyball plays on amid riots

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Media captionBeach volleyball glamour gives Londoners reason to smile

Extra police will be on the streets on Tuesday night and parliament has been recalled as the government and police try to cope with rioting in London and across the UK. But a stone's throw from seats of power in Whitehall, it is a party as usual at the London 2012 beach volleyball test event.

If you want to forget your troubles, go to the beach.

While pockets of the capital and communities across the country are clearing up after another night of riots, the only problem at the beach volleyball London 2012 test event is the bother the Brazilian pair are giving the Mexicans in a three-set thriller.

The six-day women's international competition is being held in Horse Guards Parade as a practice for next year's Games.

It is metres from where the prime minister convened his emergency committee Cobra on Tuesday morning to try to deal with the aftermath of the looting and vandalism, after 450 arrests and facing the prospect of another night of mayhem.

Over the Whitehall rooftops in this political power zone lies parliament, which will sit on Thursday to deal with the crisis.

Organisers here have announced that a side practice court will be used for competition so the venue closes earlier than scheduled on Tuesday night, but the atmosphere in the parade ground is one of partying hard in the face of adversity.

A sell out crowd is filling the 1,500 seats of a three-sided centre court, constructed as a dry run for next year's 15,000 capacity temporary Olympic venue.

Between each point of the two-on-two-player game, the DJ is blasting out beats: Beyonce and Dizzee Rascal's Bonkers.

The crowd basks in occasional bursts of squinty sunshine and is lapping up the view of athletic women in micro bikinis bashing a ball around.

It feels faintly ridiculous, but it is a break from the chaos for some.

"We came to escape the nightmare," says Justin Cochrane, who owns a software company in Croydon and has brought his family - wife Karen and twins Lauren and Ben.

"It's more peaceful out here than it is in Croydon today," he says, as music booms from the courtside speakers, and indeed, the word "Boom" flashes up on the big screen after another decisive point is scored.

He watched aerial pictures as his office was circled by helicopter crews on the TV news last night. It is just metres from the Croydon furniture store which was burned to the ground by arsonists. His building's damage is "cosmetic".

Along with many people here, he feels the problem is "the kids who think they can get away with murder" and thinks the police need to toughen up their stance.

But the general mood among the crowd here is carefree, just happy to take in the "fantastic" historic London building setting and views across to St James's Park.

Hand signals

It is an old cliché that the crowd has little understanding of the finer points of beach volleyball. There are guys here, set up in the stands with their pizza and beer. Taking it all in.

And even the casual beach volleyball players and sometime indoor coaches admit they might have mastered the simple hitting and scoring system, but the complex signals players use, with their hands placed behind their bottoms, remain a tantalising mystery.

Image caption The players got on with the event in hand

Spectating continues unabashed, even as the organisers announce the competition will cease almost three hours earlier than scheduled - 7.15pm instead of the after office-friendly time of 10pm. They call it "a sensible and pragmatic approach given recent events in London".

And the party goes on as Olympic minister Hugh Robertson arrives to address questions about what happens to the Olympics in 2012 if this violence happens next year.

National Olympic Committee and IOC members are currently in London, but their focus is nothing compared with the world's attention during the Games.

Mr Robertson says of the riots and security planned for the sports schedule in 2012: "Don't confuse the two.

"What has happened over the last couple of nights is unforgivable. It is straightforward low level criminality - people trying to steal goods from shops."

Terrorist threat

In contrast, he says the Olympic Security Plan, before and during Games time, has been modelled against the highest level of terrorist threat and in every situation security chiefs can think of.

The situation across London is beyond Locog's control but security is one of the aspects of the venue the 2012 Games organisers are testing, along with the lighting, technology such as scoring and the press centre, the sand-filled courts, the crowds, their tickets and taking players to and from the venues.

As sirens wail past outside, that all seems to be progressing steadily. Amid nervous, first-day over-efficiency, the staff chat about whether they will return home at the end of their shift to a community under siege.

Families in the crowd have not been deterred by the chaos seen in districts outside the city centre. Many feel it may, perversely, be safer here, just off the Mall, than anywhere else.

Nicky Dixon has travelled from Hornchurch, Essex with her husband Ian, and two young girls, Daisy, 9, and Ruby, 5. Like many people sitting in the stands, she failed to get Olympic tickets and is taking the chance to experience something close to an Olympic event.

"The girls can't tell the difference between the practice and the real thing," she smiles.

Later on, as news filters in of the first death in the rioting there is a sense of embarrassment from native Brits about the face London is showing to the world and incomprehension from visitors in the stands and courtside.

'Rubber bullets'

Canadian player Heather Bansley is just off the court with her partner Liz Maloney after beating Malaysia. "Friends and family from home keep checking in to make sure we are ok, but it's not a great thing to be happening to London," she says.

Kunal Yadav, a law student and occasional beach volleyball player from Long Island, New York, is watching the US team beat China in a two-set thrashing.

"We just wonder why the cops are so slow," he says. "In the US, this would have been taken care of with a bunch of rubber bullets and tear gas."

Perhaps that may form part of the solution.

Outside the venue where a late afternoon crowd is due, police are preparing to combat a fourth night of trouble with 16,000 officers and the Met says it will consider using plastic bullets.

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