Footsteps in the sand: Lycra-clad enthusiasts in sunglasses are playing the Copacabana's favourite game in rain-sodden Britain. Richard Simpson wonders why

The Jamaican bobsleigh team is a shining example of how to cheat on nature. The island has not seen snow in living memory, and yet their four-man team slipped down Lillehammer's slopes like true virtuosos at this year's Winter Olympics. So there's no reason why Britain should not be a serious contender for the beach volleyball title.

In Brazil, where the game is second only to football in popularity, there is the lush setting of the Copacabana, while the sun-drenched Californians have their beloved Venice Beach for a practice ground. In Britain, lines are being drawn in the sands of Bournemouth and Bridlington, and in a purpose-built sandpit on the outskirts of London.

'A lot of people have probably played it or seen it abroad, or else seen it in films like Top Gun,' Phil 'Bear' Davies, who has been playing for five years, says. 'But people still look on in amazement when a spectator stand is erected along the beach for a volleyball competition, especially when it's raining. If it buckets down you play.'

By contrast, in the States beach volleyball is big business. Professionals can earn a meaty pounds 70,000 per competition, and top stars have their own fan clubs and groupies.

Over here, the unpredictable weather doesn't help. But enthusiasts approach the game with the same beach-bum gusto as their equatorial counterparts. There is no dress code, but wrap-around sunglasses and slinky tops are very much de rigueur. 'It does attract people who are image-conscious,' Paul Sullivan, a 42-year-old who runs his own company, admits. 'Because the game comes from the beach, it attracts a more laid-back, mellow culture. It's great for a suntan when the sun is out.' It also seems to attract some shady spectators. As one portly American confessed: 'A lot of people go to watch the girls play in bikinis. I like it when the foreign students play, because they play to please. They play out of their skins.'

Like the more established indoor game, the object is to send the ball over the net and within the boundaries of the court so that the opposing team are unable to return it or prevent it from hitting the ground. Any part of the body above the waist may be used to propel the ball.

Unlike the indoor game, where teams are made up of six players, beach volleyball is played in pairs. 'The six-people game is a much faster game: it has a higher level of technique,' Phil Davies, a PE teacher, says. 'Two-versus-two is much cheaper and it's easier to pick up a partner.' He adds that it is also more accessible to everyone since height is not such a crucial factor, though the beach game is male-dominated and there are few quality female players on the circuit.

Persuading people to take up the sport remains an uphill struggle. 'There aren't that many organised places where you can go and play,' Davies says, though the task has recently been made easier by the David Lloyd Tennis Centre in Raynes Park, which built a court on former wasteland using 45 tons of sand.

'The area was not being used, so we persuaded them to landscape it.' Davies said. 'In most countries they have sandpits outside large bars where people can play, although it is the only one in this country.' The solitary 'pit' may not have the same sex appeal as Venice Beach, but for now, it is as close to Baywatch as London gets.

English Volleyball Association: 0602 816324; David Lloyd Tennis Centre: 081-543 8020

(Photograph omitted)

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