LONDON – Facing a host side making Great Britain’s first-ever Olympic men’s beach volleyball appearance, Canada’s Josh Binstock and Martin Reader knew the atmosphere would be electric at Horse Guards Parade on Saturday.
They embraced the challenge and secured a key victory in the process.
Binstock and Reader edged Steve Grotowski and John Garcia-Thompson 21-19 in a thrilling opening set before taking the finale 21-13 in the preliminary round opener for both sides.
With a near-sellout crowd in raucous form on a warm, breezy afternoon, Binstock and Reader sealed the opener after an unbelievable rally on set point. Both teams made a series of acrobatic shots that had the fans gasping and clamouring for more.
Reader finally ended the drama with a spike that was too much for the Brits to handle. Both he and Binstock extended their arms in the air for several seconds after what was easily the point of the match.
“I felt the stadium pulsating with breath every dig we made in that last rally,” Reader said. “It was crazy.”
Beach volleyball is not exactly a top sport in these parts, but you wouldn’t know it by the energy at the 15,000-seat venue.
There was a huge roar when Grotowski and Garcia-Thompson were introduced and an emcee got the crowd even more charged by providing a running commentary after each rally.
“Remember this isn’t Wimbledon — the players love noise,” he shouted at one point.
These fans weren’t shy. They were ready to hoot, holler and party on the first full day of athletic competition at the Games.
They were helped out by a DJ who played snippets of top-40 and rock tunes after every point. A troop of about a dozen dancers brought their buff beach bods onto the court to perform during breaks.
British pop culture was also on full display. Music selections from the Britpop catalog were in the rotation and even the theme from Benny Hill was played when the grounds crew raked the sand.
Add in the magnificent setting around the venue and it was an afternoon to remember. The magnificent architecture of the government buildings provided a stunning backdrop and the chimes from Big Ben could be heard now and again.
Great Britain won the opening point but Reader showed his strength and tremendous jumping ability by absolutely stuffing a Garcia-Thompson spike attempt just a moment later.
The teams were fairly even throughout the opening game with the crowd giving both teams some love. The spectators really seemed to enjoy the competition and the Olympic atmosphere as a whole.
“It’s on fire in there,” Reader said. “The beauty about beach volleyball is that the people who watch it, the spectators, I think they appreciate a good rally. As much as they’re cheering for a country or a nation, they appreciate the athleticism of the sport.
“There were a couple of amazing rallies and we came out on top but we felt at home because they were still cheering. It’s not like it was silent whenever we won a point. So it was on fire and we felt the love.”
There were pockets of Canadian fans on hand — including a few wearing hockey helmets with their Canada gear — but they were no match for the pumped-up home crowd.
“When the whistle goes you are so focused on the match that you can’t hear the crowd,” Garcia-Thompson said. “But when the point finishes, the noise floods in. It was the best atmosphere I have ever had in a beach volleyball match.”
The towering Canadians have played together for less than a year.
Binstock, from Richmond Hill, Ont., and Reader, from Comox Valley, B.C., have posted some impressive wins this season, including a victory over host Mexico at the recent Continental Cup.
“We’re not strangers to playing a team in their home nation in a high-pressure match,” Binstock said. “We actually invited the challenge. We really embraced it and we’ve been talking about it since we found out about the draw.
“Just saying how much we love it, love the opportunity to step up on their home soil and make it happen.”
Next up is a match against Norway on Monday before the preliminary-round finale against the powerhouse Brazilian side later in the week. The Canadians said they won’t spend long celebrating their first win.
“To date it’s our biggest win of our career,” Binstock said. “We’re going to approach every game like that, it puts us in a good spot. But by no means are we through to the (next round). That’s the goal. So we’re going to enjoy this immediate moment now and then tomorrow get back to work.”
Sixteen of the 24 teams entered in the tournament will qualify for the knockout phase. In addition to Brazil, Germany, the United States and the Netherlands are also strong.
The Canadians said they’re hoping to reach the quarter-final and then take it from there. They feel a podium appearance is a possibility.
“Obviously we have short-term goals but we don’t think that’s unrealistic,” Binstock said.