Sublime or ridiculous? Welcome to the Olympics of the absurd

Beach volleyball day one: Mike Rowbottom sees a new sport make its debut

"You are part of history," the announcer told the 15,000 or so sunstruck spectators at Atlanta Beach yesterday. "This is Olympic beach volleyball." No one seemed quite sure how to react to this news, and there followed a short excerpt from Johnny B Goode.

Like rock and roll music, beach volleyball has been gathered into the embrace of the Establishment. The sport which originated on the beaches of California in the 1930s, and which boomed as a fun pursuit for a generation of camper van-inhabiting hippies in the 1960s, has now given itself over to the International Olympic Committee.

But if it has lost something through that, those present at this man- made beach 300 miles from any ocean seemed more than happy about the counterbalancing gains.

The modern Olympics has included and discarded many odd activities in its 100-year span: sports like the 14lb stone throw, the standing triple jump and even, intriguingly, the javelin (both hands).

How long beach volleyball - which has been described as Baywatch with rules - will remain within the Olympic realm is open to question. But, given their beach culture, the Australians are hardly likely to refuse it space in the 2,000 Sydney Games. And the Americans are certainly enjoying it.

Beach volleyball's inclusion in the Olympics has everything to do with its popularity in the United States, as reflected, inevitably, in television ratings. The most recent figures available from the host broadcasters, NBC, assign domestic showings of beach volleyball a rating of 2.0, with one point representing 959,000 homes. Given that the sacred sport of basketball rates 5.3, beach volleyball is not surprisingly described by an NBC spokesman as "a regular staple of our coverage".

And just to make sure that the host nation was thoroughly happy with the arrangements, an extra team place was allocated to them in their capacity as host nation.

Gail Castro, one of the six US women competing yesterday, underlined the point. "TV was where we made our big jump in this event," she said. "Once we got TV, the big sponsors wanted to come in and... well," she concluded with a grin, "money."

Money. Most of the teams here had it. The top players in the women's game, US and Brazilian, can earn between $300,000 (pounds 200,000) and $500,000 a year. The Americans, Brazilians, Dutch, German are all professional. Which leaves the Brits.

Encouraged by a group of friends and relatives holding the charmingly restrained banner "Go! Go! Aud & Mo!", Britain's pairing of Amanda Glover, a 26-year-old supervisor at the Britannic Leisure Centre in Hackney, and 31-year-old Audrey Cooper, a publicity officer with Racal Electronics, held the top Australian pairing for nearly 20 minutes before sliding to a 15-4 defeat.

Afterwards they reflected on the usual problems which British competitors encounter in many Olympics - difficulties in funding, lack of indoor facilities. But they were adamant that their sport deserved its place in the Games. Challenged as to what response they would make to those who did not, they chanted, in almost perfect unison: "Come and see it."

Many people did so yesterday. The appeal of the sport lies in its simple mixture of athleticism, sunshine and sex. Bronzed, worked-out bodies were everywhere yesterday in an atmosphere that was somewhere between a tennis tournament and a beach party. Sunglasses - Raybans or Killer Loop - were de rigeur. The behaviour of the competitors on court is as uniform as their own skimpy dress code. They dive and high-five, churning the playing surface into ruined sandcastles and invariably touching hands between points, win or lose, as if for reassurance.

With four fewer people than an indoor volleyball team, the sense of mutual dependency in this sport is exaggerated. Curiously, however, two of the medal favourites - the top US pair of Nancy Reno and Holly McPeak, and the Brazilian world champions Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires - have been riven by arguments in recent weeks. Reno, a staunch feminist, reportedly objected to her partner having a breast enlargement operation, and had to be persuaded not to break up the pairing.

For all the divergence in financial resources evident here, what players have in common was also glaringly obvious - the heat of the sun, which yesterday raised temperatures on court into the 100s. The lingering problem of sand, too, is something held in common. "Three months after a tournament you can still find sand coming out of your ears," Castro said. "It's the weirdest thing."

The audience response to all this sweaty activity yielded some interesing international variation.The British clapped daringly, the Americans whistled, and the Brazilians, led by a trumpeter and a man with huge green and yellow gloves, chanted to a sequence of beguiling rythms. Meanwhile, behind the stands, America's holy trinity of Coke, McDonalds and Budweiser did their steady business.

Whether it accorded with the spirit of the Olympics - who knows. The spirit of the place, at any rate, was summed up in a uniquely Californian way by one of the US team, Barbra Fontana Harris. "I think," she said, "that the energy in the air is just more celebration and a more powerful definition of focality. And that's great."

Which, in a way, said it all.

STRANGE OLYMPIC SPORTS - PAST AND PRESENT

The past

ROQUE: A variation of croquet, played on a hard-surfaced court with a raised border that can be used for bank shots. Only ever included in the 1904 Games, with all competitors from the United States.

TUG OF WAR: The first team to pull the other team six feet was declared the winner. In 1900, the US team took part in a 'friendly' tug, which broke up when American spectators decided to join in.

KORFBALL: A game similar to basketball which appeared in the 1920 Games. Played by teams comprising six men and six women, korfball is particularly popular in the Netherlands and Germany.

STONE THROW: Held in the 1906 Games in Athens, where the American favourite, James Mitchel, was unable to compete due to a dislocated shoulder sustained when the US team's ship was hit by a large wave.

PELOTA: Also known as jai alai; originated from the Basque region of Spain. Played with a basket strapped to the hand, with the aim of not allowing the other player to return the ball. Demo sport in the 1924 Olympics and also appeared in the Mexico games.

RACQUETS: Similar to real tennis, featured only in the 1908 Games, where Britain gained all three medals in the doubles event.

The present

RHYTHMIC GYMNASTICS: Hoops, hoopla ribbons and music. But a sport?

SYNCHRONISED SWIMMING: More music, which appears to accompany a competition for fixed smiles among teenage girls.

Information on past sports: Olympic '96 magazine

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