Bondi beach prepares for volleyball war

Letter From Sydney

A late summer's day at Bondi Beach. Two Chinese women wearing cardboard sun visors are seated on a bench, surveying the golden sweep of sand. A bronzed couple jog past, moving in precise synchrony. On the promenade, outside the Surf Life Savers Club, a roller-skater executes an intricate turn. Out at sea, surfers bob like penguins, patiently awaiting the perfect wave.

A beguiling scene, but not for much longer. Next month work starts on a 10,000-seat stadium that will be the beach volleyball venue for the Sydney Olympic Games. The temporary stadium will occupy one-third of Australia's most famous stretch of sand, splitting the beach in two and restricting public access to the promenade, the adjoining park and the listed bathing pavilion.

You mess with icons at your peril, as the Olympic Co-ordination Authority, which is responsible for construction projects, is discovering. As final plans for the contentious stadium were released last week, Bondi residents - fiercely possessive of their beach - threatened to lie down in front of bulldozers to prevent work from going ahead. The OCA said it would respond by calling in police.

The battle lines are thus drawn for a bitter confrontation that could see television images beamed around the world of demonstrators being hauled away by burly men in uniform: the type of publicity that beleaguered Olympics organisers could do without, five months before the Games begin in September.

The people of Bondi are unrepentant. "The stadium will be a dreadful eyesore, and it will detract from the entire quality of life in the area," said Lenny Kovner, one of the protesters.

Mr Kovner claims to have a list of 860 "Bondi Warriors" who are prepared to resort to direct action. "They are not green-haired ferals with studs through their noses," he said. "They are respectable family people, businessmen, mothers, even a couple of Holocaust survivors."

The mix reflects Bondi's egalitarian ethos. The beach is used all day, 365 days of the year - by joggers and cyclists who appear at first light, by sun worshippers, by elderly folk taking an evening constitutional. On late afternoons in summer, the flat, wide sands fill up with factory and office workers. There is a sense that the beach belongs to everyone, and so the notion of limited access is anathema to locals.

Waverley Council, which manages the beach, is opposed to the £5m stadium, which will comprise two 50ft-high grandstands, two competition courts and five warm-up and training courts. But it claims that it has no legal grounds to veto it.

The council signed an agreement with the OCA after negotiating a compensation package that includes refurbishment of the 1920s pavilion, used as a community centre. The deal prompted one protester to tell the mayor, Paul Pearce: "Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, but you have sold out for a paint job and a lift."

Had the stadium been destined for a more traditional sport, Bondi residents might have felt better disposed towards it. They share the widely held belief that the appeal of beach volleyball, which made its Olympic debut at Atlanta in 1996, lies in the spectacle of scantily clad women diving around on the sand rather than in any display of skill or athleticism.

That suspicion was reinforced when the FIVB, the International Volleyball Federation, decreed last year that the width of bikini bottoms worn by female players must not exceed six centimetres and that tops should be "tight fitting, with open upper chest".

Such are the sensitivities surrounding the stadium, which will be the last Olympic venue to be completed, that a beach volleyball test event due to take place at Bondi last September was cancelled.

Australian players, who include the Atlanta bronze medallists, Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook, will be not be permitted to train at Bondi until three weeks before the tournament starts. "There goes our home advantage," lamented Ben Jones, programme manager for the Australian team. "It's a bummer. We'll be like foreigners in our own country."

One burning question remains to be answered before September. Will Waverley Council remove the notices posted the length of the sea wall at Bondi which state, quite plainly, that "Ball games are strictlyprohibited"?

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