BEACH VOLLEYBALL: Swimming against the tide

Nick Halling reports from Bournemouth on the difficulty facing a demanding sport in establishing itself in Britain despite its Olympic status and worldwide popularity
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Perhaps the biggest problem facing beach volleyball is that as a nation we associate sand and sea with buckets and spades rather than strenuous physical exertion.

Thus while this relatively new sport continues to increase in popularity and respectability around the world, here in Britain it commands the gravitas normally reserved for the annual seaside donkey derby.

The image, of course, is unfair, but beach volleyball's inclusion in last year's Olympic programme failed to silence the critics. Even Desmond Lynam, that master of impartiality and the consummate television professional, was unable to mask a smirk of derision while introducing highlights from Atlanta.

"Some people insist on seeing it as a joke sport, but that's not the way it is," Andy Barstow, the president of the English Volleyball Association, said. "Try jumping and running around on sand, and you'll soon see how difficult it is. You have a court of 30 square feet from which to attack and defend and there's only two players per team. The standard of fitness required to play beach volleyball is exceptionally high."

The sport's quest for credibility has taken another step forward this year with the introduction of a domestic grand prix series. Yesterday the tour reached its conclusion with a two-day tournament in Bournemouth, having previously stopped in Margate, Cleethorpes and Weymouth.

Each event has effectively been a qualifier for next weekend's British Open to be played at Battersea Park on a court comprising of 600 tons of fine grain sand imported for the occasion.

"We've taken a lot of knocks, but things are starting to happen over here," said the leading British player, Audrey Cooper, who, along with her partner, Amanda Glover, came ninth in last year's Olympics. "What we've tried to do with the domestic tour is copy what goes on elsewhere around the world, albeit on a smaller scale."

In the United States, there are established professional circuits, supported by significant sponsorship and television deals. Leading players, such as Sinjin Smith and the statuesque, 6ft 3in model Gabrielle Reece, will expect to earn in excess of $200,000 (pounds 125,000) per annum for their on- court efforts. There is also a world tour in progress, with exotic stops in Rio, Melbourne and Los Angeles. Total prize-money on the global circuit is just over $4m. A world apart from the British tour's pot of pounds 8,000.

Needless to say, there are no British professional beach volleyball players, although Cooper and Glover are considering taking the gamble in preparation for the Sydney Olympics in three years' time. Both are good enough to compete on the world tour although, with Cooper injured, Glover is currently partnered by Vanessa Malone, a nurse from London.

While their compatriots were avoiding the showers in Dorset, the British partnership were in Portugal, and will be off to South Korea following next weekend's extravaganza in Battersea.

The country's leading male players struggle when compared with the top Americans, Australians and Brazilians, although the defending champions, Grant Pursey and Chris Eaton from Bournemouth, are hoping to qualify for next month's World Championships in Los Angeles.

"The British tour is something we take very seriously," said Pursey, from Perth in Western Australia, now based in Dorset. "It's about getting the game some credibility. I've played beach volleyball all over the world and it is taken seriously everywhere but here. The image is changing. It's a matter of earning respect, and the tour definitely helps."

They reached their third final of the tour yesterday, taking on Darren and Steve Gable, the 6ft 5in Californian-born, Billericay-based identical twins. As the rain lashed down on bemused holidaymakers huddled for shelter beneath Bournemouth pier, the Americans may have questioned the wisdom of leaving their native Santa Monica. However, they overcame a slow start to win in three sets in a game of tension and needle which belied the sport's laidback reputation.

In the women's final, Denise Austin from Devon, confirmed her domestic superiority by completing a clean sweep of grand prix wins. She achieved the feat with her fourth partner of the tour, 18-year-old Karen Ingham from Selby, who proved too strong for the local pairing, Cathy Norman and Fiona Fazackerley.

The dilemma for beach volleyball is a cruel one. Its appeal lies in its association with sun, sea, shade and factor 32, the very elements which undermine its claims to be taken seriously as a competitive sport. Next weekend's British Open will give an indication of how far it has progressed, but when foundations are built on sand, constructing something to last will never be easy.