LONDON — A few miles from the worst violence to hit the city in 25 years, beach volleyball players dived headlong in the sand, the most summery of Olympic sports on display less than a year before the London Games.
The matches were played under the shadow of the London Eye big wheel, and not far from Buckingham Palace and No. 10 Downing Street. Yet no historic backdrop could block the images of rioting and looting that have swept the city the past three days and left a mark on British sports.
The soccer game between England and the Netherlands at Wembley was the biggest casualty. And as IOC officials arrived to review progress leading to the 2012 Games, they were greeted by a forbidding landscape a short way from where the Olympics will unfold.
Plumes of smoke rose from run-down neighborhoods. Businesses closed early — many of them boarded up — as authorities struggled to contain the country’s worst unrest since race riots set London ablaze in the 1980s.
It was hardly the image Britain hoped to present to the world. This was a time when fans should have been reveling in the expectation of a successful Olympics and the start of English soccer season.
Instead, athletes fielded calls from worried relatives watching TV footage of burning buildings and vehicles. Officials tried to downplay the impact of the violence that began Saturday night in the Tottenham area of north London following the fatal shooting of a local man by police.
“My friends and family have been calling,” Canadian beach volleyball player Heather Bansley said. “They keep checking in to make sure we’re OK. It’s not a great thing to be happening to London.”
The disorder comes less than two weeks after London celebrated with great fanfare the one-year countdown to the opening of the games on July 27, 2012.
On Monday, the violence spread to Hackney, one the boroughs encompassing the Olympic Park in east London. The unrest took place about four miles from the park, site of the main Olympic Stadium and other key venues.
Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson cut short their vacations to head back to the capital as organizers defended security planning and pressed ahead with preparations for the world’s biggest sports festival.
“We have a commitment to deliver a safe and secure games and we will do so,” Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson said. “All the evidence shows this trouble is low-level criminality driven by messages on social networks and not some new, emerging security threat.”
More than 500 people have been arrested in London and more than 100 charged so far.
With police needed elsewhere, Wembley Stadium was deemed not safe enough to host Wednesday’s soccer game. With 70,000 tickets sold for the visit of a Dutch team that reached last year’s World Cup final, the Football Association will take a financial hit because of ticket refunds.
Tuesday’s game between Ghana and Nigeria in neutral Watford, 20 miles northwest of London, was also called off. The Premier League said it was still talking with police before deciding whether this weekend’s season-opening matches at Tottenham, Fulham and Queen’s Park Rangers could proceed. Two domestic cup games set for Tuesday also were abandoned.
Tottenham was the scene of the shooting that sparked the initial violence and one of the areas hardest hit by riots. One of the ticket offices at the north London club’s stadium was closed because of damage.
With the mayhem spreading outside London, dozens of people attacked shops in Birmingham’s main retail district. England’s cricketers were warned to stay in the team hotel after dark as they prepared for their match against India on Wednesday. Rival captains Andrew Strauss and Mahendra Singh Dhoni supported the decision to play.
“This is an opportunity for cricket to maybe put a feel-good factor back into the newspapers and show that not everything’s bad out there at the moment,” Strauss said.
But, for now, it’s the outlying areas of London such as Hackney that are suffering.
Amid the tourist haunts of historic central London, only the rock music pumping from the speaker system drowned out the polite applause of spectators at a temporary beach volleyball court made up of 2,274 tons of imported sand.
About half the seats at the sold-out event went unfilled. And because of worries that night would bring renewed violence, officials wrapped up the opening day almost three hours early so fans, staff and volunteers could get home before dark.
FIVB Beach Volleyball Director Angelo Squeo, who was on site during the Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Games, said he consulted with high-ranking London Olympic organizers and police before making the decision.
“I will do whatever in order to not put in danger — not even risk putting in danger — anybody here,” Squeo told The Associated Press. “In Atlanta, we had the bomb and I was left with 11,000 people outside the venue and I did not know if I had the green light or red light.”
Brittany Hochevar hopes to qualify for the U.S. volleyball team and return next year for the Olympics. Her sport will be played on a site that hosted jousting tournaments during the reign of Henry VIII.
“When you’re a competitor and you’re a warrior, when you know that competitions have taken place here for generations and generations, it gives me goose bumps — it really does,” ” Hochevar told the AP. “I said my prayers last night. Now, I have a vision of what it could be like getting back here in 2012 in all it’s glory.”
But is she concerned for her safety?
“Not really, I live in L.A.,” Hochevar said. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen myself.”
Other scheduled test events this week include a cycling road race that will go through the streets of London on Sunday and a marathon swimming competition at Hyde Park on Saturday. The world badminton championship are taking place at the Olympic venue of Wembley Arena in north London.
“I don’t feel I know enough about the riots and how close they are to us,” said Jens Grill, who is in charge of the British badminton team. “But last night we walked back together and the players walked back in groups just to be on the safe side.”