Rock critic Alexis Petridis reviews the GB Olympics beach volleyball team

Will it be all fun, music and glamour? Or more like being a mid-level touring band without the distractions of drugs and booze?
Alexis Petridis
Sun 15 Jul 2012 14.07 EDT
Alexis Petridis heads to a rainy Bath to watch the women's beach volleyball team train. Source:

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It is 9am on a Thursday morning, pouring with rain and unseasonably cold, and I'm standing outside at the University of Bath's sports training village, watching the British women's Olympic beach volleyball team. What they're doing looks as relentless and numbing as the rain: the same shots practised over and over again.

Up close, it's hard not to be struck by the speed with which Shauna Mullin and Zara Dampney move; by the weird, almost telepathic communication that seems to exist between them – and by the ferocity with which they hit the ball, which seems at odds with the game's reputation as the kind of wafty sport people play on holiday.

If you're me, indeed, it's hard not to be struck by the ball itself, which at one juncture is mis-hit in my direction. I see it coming at high speed and – displaying once more the natural athleticism that made me so popular at school when teams were being picked – shout "Jesus Christ!" before running in the opposite direction. Mullin and Dampney take time out of their punishing pre-Olympic schedule to exchange a glance that seems to say: "What's that berk doing here?"

It's a good question. The short answer is I'm a rock critic and, on some levels, beach volleyball is considered to have a few things in common with rock'n'roll. It's widely thought of as glamorous, a kind of lifestyle accessory as much as a sport: the website of Beach Volleyball UK Ltd loads up under the banner headline: "Fun! Music! Party! Glamour! Lifestyle!"

I can't see the relevance of any of those things in the pouring rain in Bath – unless by "lifestyle" you mean the team's relentless dedication to their sport, which (in combination with a lack of indoor training facilities in Britain) means they get, at Mullin's estimation, about "two or three weeks off a year". The rest of the time they're travelling around together, "in the same hotel room, on the court together, in the gym together … it's like a marriage. Our psychologist helps us with it."

I suppose if you were looking for parallels with rock music, their life sounds not unlike that of a mid-level touring band, endlessly slogging around the globe, albeit without the distractions of drugs and booze and groupies – the very things I've always suspected make life in a mid-level touring band something other than misery incarnate.

But there's another sense in which Britain's women's beach volleyball team reminds me of the world of music: like one of those hyped firework bands, they've had an enormous amount of publicity, yet nevertheless feel misunderstood by the press and public.

In the 21st century, you would have thought humanity might have got over the novelty value of seeing women in swimsuits, but apparently not. At one juncture, Dampney and Mullin gave up doing interviews altogether, so fed up were they of being asked about bikinis and buttocks.

In Britain, a weird kind of leering licentiousness has attached itself to the sport: telling people you're going to meet a women's beach volleyball team has the same effect that telling them you were going to meet a deputation of Swedish au-pairs or French maids would once have done: it brings out their inner Sid James.

In Brazil or the US, Mullin says, they don't go in for all the phwoooar-ing over women's beach volleyball. It's more established, so no one thinks of it as the punchline of a joke, or an unmissable opportunity for men to ogle women's bums masquerading as a sport.

"But we can't really let it aggravate us," says Mullin. "What we're doing is trying to show people it's more than just bikinis. We work really hard, so we're trying to get people to see that side of it as well."

I leave them to it. They have another session with their psychologist, then weight training. But a few weeks later I see them again, on the front cover of a Sunday newspaper's style magazine. The headline is "Bottoms up", and the focus of the photo is Dampney's buttocks, clad in a £185 bikini. I sigh on their behalf, then think, well, you posed for the photos. Perhaps they felt they deserved a quick injection of glamour after all.

Shauna Mullin's cultural life

Film: Twister ("Don't laugh ...")

Book: Sundowners by Leslie Loko

Music: Florence and the Machine, the Goo-Goo Dolls

Musical: Wicked

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