Beach becomes the battleground of a new era

Andy Martin, in Weymouth, samples beach volleyball - a post-apocalyptic vision of sport

Ecologists have predicted the apocalyptic scenario they call "desertification". Beach volleyball is the answer to what to do with all that sand other than lie on it or get out your bucket and spade. Weymouth, where Baywatch met Dorset in the shape of the Jose Cuervo Beach Volleyball Championship over the weekend, witnessed not just a climate change but a shift in the zeitgeist. Beach volleyball is a new millennium sport that will take over here when there is no more mud to play rugby on.

"There were 350 courts on the beach - and we still couldn't find one to train on," the loose-limbed, stubbly Australian Grant Pursey told me. But he was talking about Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro not Weymouth. "In Brazil they are fanatical about the game. The finals were held in front of 12,000 screaming Brazilians."

After winning the final in partnership with Ian Fairclough in front of a few hundred politely applauding Brits and taking the player of the tournament award, Pursey modestly paid tribute to the man who taught him all he knows, Byron Shewman from San Diego. "An awesome, awesome player. He'd turn up on a beach and teach us how to talk to girls and stuff."

In Perth, Pursey lives three minutes from the beach and plays every day; based in London for the England beach volleyball series he trains at a lido in Ruislip. "It's not quite the same feeling," he admits. "Like surfing on a wave machine: not the real thing."

In The End Of History and The Last Man, Francis Fukuyama attributed the rise of sports like surfing, rollerblading and beach volleyball, notably in California, to what he called "megalothymia", an overdeveloped desire for exhibiting prowess and attaining distinction against the background of a general decline in the traditional arenas of struggle, military, political or economic. In other words, in LA it's cooler to win the "King of the Beach" contest than to make another million bucks. Not that there is any necessary contradiction between these two objectives in California where the first beach volleyball dollar millionaires can make $100,000 (pounds 64,000) a game.

Pursey puts it slightly differently. "Beach volleyball is a great way of not working and staying alive. The ideal would be surfing in the morning, volleyball in the afternoon, and never going near an office."

These days the beach bum is a full-time pro. You can't fool around on the beach anymore. To be this good you have to put in a lot of dedicated hours on the sand. I thought I could play beach volleyball before I tried my hand at it in Santa Monica where I was humiliated and hooted off the beach. Blowing an easy shot was a cardinal sin; I'd violated a sacred ritual. The beach is a temple - but the beach is also a jungle.

Weymouth this weekend was the meeting point of past and future. At one end of the beach the traditional Englishman on holiday slowly basted in the sun as greasily obese as a megaburger with chips. At the other end was the optimal beach volleyball body - tall, lithe, muscular, rippling with dynamism. Even the referees looked good, unheard of in any other sport.

The key difference between the outdoor and indoor versions of volleyball is not the sand or the two as opposed to six players per team, but the fact that you go about undressed as if in some desert island fantasy. The only indispensable items are the shades and plenty of sun block.

Matthew Jones and Richard Dobell, No1 seeds and defeated finalists, told me they had already got through five pairs of sunglasses and eight sets of lenses this season. "This sport is tough on shades," said the hulking 6ft 5in Matthew Jones, "especially when you throw them down after losing a point." Fortunately they are sponsored by Bolle, the sunglasses firm.

Television cameras, stand offish where the indoor game is concerned, are completely seduced by beach volleyball. The first question a Sky TV crew put to Richard Dobell was: "How many volley dollies do you have?"

Vanessa Malone and Denise Touhey, who won the women's contest by a mile, might object to this label. They are seriously committed contenders. Denise was hawking a crossword she had compiled at a quid a time to drum up funds for the Portuguese Grand Prix next month in the Algarve. For the British No1 pair, Mo Glover and Audrey Cooper, it was a toss up between Weymouth and a world series tour taking them from California to South Africa, Korea and Japan. Weymouth narrowly lost out. But Glover and Cooper needed to garner the qualifying points they hope will take them on to Atlanta in '96, where beach volleyball will be making its Olympic debut.

Those countries which have their main cities on the beach - USA, Brazil, Australia - naturally have an edge in beach volleyball. Technically, Norway has one of the leading men's teams but they are Californian Norwegians who have spent five years at UCLA. But we in Britain are on the brink of a breakthrough. If our cities can't get to the beach, the beach must come to the city. The yellowing of England proceeds apace, with David Lloyd trucking in hundreds of tons of sand to Raynes Park where he has opened a beach volleyball court. Meanwhile, Neil Cunningham, of the sports promoters Match Point, is planning a tournament to be held in Battersea Park at what he is already calling "London Beach".

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