Hot moves on the sand pull in the crowds for women's competition

It was the sponsorship deal made in heaven. Two Norwegian players, Kathrine Maaseide and Susanne Glesnes, walked on to the court in the Olympic Games' sexiest competition wearing contraceptive patches on their shoulders provided by a medical company. Not for long, however, as a beach volleyball official promptly told the players they were breaching Olympic regulations forbidding product placement.

It was the sponsorship deal made in heaven. Two Norwegian players, Kathrine Maaseide and Susanne Glesnes, walked on to the court in the Olympic Games' sexiest competition wearing contraceptive patches on their shoulders provided by a medical company. Not for long, however, as a beach volleyball official promptly told the players they were breaching Olympic regulations forbidding product placement.

The Norwegians probably had good reason to think that anything goes in beach volleyball. The players' skimpy outfits leave little to the imagination, dancers gyrate on the court between points, an announcer whips the crowd into a frenzy and a DJ sends high-energy music pounding across the stadium at every opportunity.

You wonder what Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Olympics, would make of it, let alone the Ancient Greeks, who banned females from competing in the Games and would not even allow married women to watch.

This, incidentally, did not stop Kallipateria, the mother of a boxer, disguising herself as a trainer in order to watch her son compete, only to give the game away when her clothing slipped as she leapt over the barrier to congratulate him on his victory. She escaped the death penalty because she came from a family of Olympic champions, although all trainers were thereafter forced to watch naked.

Today, however, eight years after it joined the Olympics, beach volleyball has become an established part of the scene. The likes of fencing and shooting may have a longer history in the Games, but this is what today's spectators want to see.

The beach volleyball stands, unlike at plenty of other Olympic events, have been packed, with many sessions complete sell-outs. Ticket prices for last night's matches at the 10,000-capacity venue, which was built especially for the Olympics, were between €60 (£40.45) and €90, more than three times as expensive as tickets for most of the other "minority" sports.

While there is a men's beach volleyball tournament going on here, it is inevitably the women who draw the most attention. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that the vast majority of photographers and TV cameramen, not to mention reporters, are men. The temptation for the cameramen to zoom in on a player's bottom to show her hand signal to her partner is clearly irresistible.

The women's competition reached a climax - or perhaps that should read "finale" - last night after a competition dominated, as usual, by Brazil, the United States and Australia.

America's Kerri Walsh and Misty May beat Brazil's Adriana Bahar and Shelda Bede to the gold medal, winning 21-17, 21-11, while the Americans Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs beat Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson, of Australia, to win the bronze medal.

While the prospect of watching fit, bronzed women perform in tight-fitting beachwear is no doubt an attraction for some, the sport itself is undeniably thrilling to watch. With only four players on the court, throwing themselves about on the sand, beach volleyball has a raw simplicity that its indoor cousin lacks.

As if the beach volleyball scene was not sexy enough, the organisers have brought in an exotic women's dance team to provide additional entertainment. The dancers, wearing bright orange bikinis during the day and shiny silver ones at night, jump on to the court between games - and sometimes even between points - and gyrate to the music.

The crowd often join in, although not all the players approve of the dancers. Some complain it distracts them, while Sanderson said: "Personally, I feel it's disrespectful to the female players. I'm sure the male spectators love it, but I find it a little bit offensive."

The players also have to cope with the announcer's commentary, delivered at fever pitch at crucial stages of the match. While it might add to the beach volleyball experience, it hardly imparts information to improve the spectators' knowledge of what they are watching, although the crowd were no doubt pleased to hear that May, one of last night's finalists, and her father had brought an urn to Athens containing the ashes of her late mother. "In spirit and essence, Barbara May is here," the announcer said.

An even bigger problem for the players has been the heat and high humidity. The air temperature has been up to 42C, while the sand itself has been even hotter. One American, Stein Metzger, played with an ice pack on his head, while others have worn socks to stop their feet getting burned.

"Water boys" sometimes hose down the crowd, but the players have no such respite. "The sand was so hot I asked them to water it but they said they couldn't," Behar said after one match. "They water the spectators. Are they more important?"

If beach volleyball seems like the classic new sport of the 21st century, it does have some history. The first recorded sighting was on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii in 1915 and the sport quickly developed on the beaches of Santa Monica in the 1920s before spreading to Europe. The real explosion, however, came in the 1980s on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

Today there is a world tour, with prize-money totalling $5.3m (£2.95m). Bede and Behar, the most successful pair in the sport's history, have won more than $1.7m in prize-money and the top Brazilians are among the country's biggest sports stars.

Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires were the first Brazilian women ever to win an Olympic gold medal when they triumphed in Sydney, while Ana Paula has her own television show.

The top Brazilian men's pair, Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos, who are favourites to win tonight's men's final, said they felt huge public pressure to succeed here after the country's footballers failed to qualify for Athens. "They put all their confidence in us," Emanuel said. "I can feel everybody cheering us."

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