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Volleyball: The spirit of Malibu seen in Margate: Guy Hodgson discovers the culture clash that's called beach volleyball

THE bad news came over the sound system, for beach volleyball takes place to the accompaniment of booming disco music. 'The Boogie Bus will be on all day,' a voice thundered out to the alarm of two elderly ladies who had settled to watch.

It was not the only clash of cultures. No more than 20 yards from the candy-floss and tat of a British promenade there was a taste of California as pure as freshly-squeezed orange juice. It was Margate and it was cold, windy and occasionally rainy but on the sandy courts the sun reigned. Beach boys and girls with tanned swim-suited bodies itched to emerge from their track suits and sweaters but it was to be only fleetingly. Sun glasses were de rigueur but almost everyone was wrapped up like winter watchers.

On view was a sport that owes its roots to beach bummery but has since been hijacked by the serious. You have to be: the five grands prix circuits and training costing around pounds 2,000 a year. Margate, a two-day event, represented a watershed for the sport in Britain in that prize money was being awarded for the first time but even the winners of the pounds 150 first prize would only have been cutting their losses. Next week the money will go on a grand prix in Bridlington, later in the summer it will be at Weymouth and then Newcastle.

'You have to really love beach volleyball,' one participant said. 'It's a not a cheap sport unless you stay in a tent. If it rains it can be pretty miserable.' It was not the sort of thing you would expect to hear in the home of the sport, southern California. There, huge crowds and television cameras view the major events - not to mention the women who play in little more than G-strings - and top players earn small fortunes. Karch Kiraly, the men's world champion with his partner, Kent Steffes, earned dollars 320,000 ( pounds 210,000) in prize money alone last year. With endorsements he is a substantial dollar millionaire.

Which is a comprehensively different league to the sport in Britain, which was given its initial shove by a scene in the film Top Gun and now has some 60 male and female partnerships playing to a standard where they would not have sand kicked in their faces by the leading Europeans. The Americans and Brazilians are the lords of the beach but Britain is catching up.

There are suggestions too that it might become an Olympic sport in either 1996 or 2000. The IOC is discouraging new events but beach volleyball might get in as a variation of the indoor sport.

'It would give the sport a massive boost,' Ian Fairclough, chairman of the Beach Volleyball Commission and a leading player, said. 'We would gain enormously in credibility.' At the moment only 5 per cent of the pounds 50,000 given to the English Volleyball Association by the Royal Bank of Scotland finds it way on to the sand.

Fairclough slipped on to the beach from the indoor sport, preferring the emphasis on fitness and all-round skills that playing with one partner brings. The court and net are the same size as volleyball proper and there is the speed-sapping effect of the sand. 'It's possible to get by in the six- a-side game,' he said, 'but on the beach, with only two of you, your deficiencies are exposed.' Even Lori Flynn, a 28-year-old former Canadian women's indoor international, found the change in pace staggering. 'I'd given up the sport for a few years but when I arrived on the beach I assumed I'd be tearing up the court. When I started playing I realised I was absolutely crap. Because of the sand I was hardly reaching any speed at all.'

Flynn and her partner, Shelna Sinte, had their limitations revealed 15-5 by the No 1 seeds, Mandy Kittlety and Mo Glover, who will represent Britain in the World Games in the Netherlands in a fortnight's time. 'We would be disappointed to finish lower than sixth,' Kittlety said. 'The gap between us and the best of Europe is narrowing.'

Meanwhile, Little Richard was belting out. Isn't the music intrusive? 'Sometimes,' she agreed, 'particularly on important points. But we played in an event last week in Bournemouth without music and it seemed curiously flat. All the big events have it.' There are limits, however, and later the players requested the music should be turned down.

The voice on the Tannoy interrupted: 'Hawkins and Tuohey and Pincott and Rodgers on Court Four.' In the disco-accompanied world of beach volleyball, even the players sound like pop groups.

(Photograph omitted)