Sorry, old guard. Since its debut in the 1996 Olympics, this sandy, bathing-suit version of volleyball has surpassed its indoor cousin in popularity. Wonder if that has anything to do with the minimalist attire? In a sublime juxtaposition, these tanned, sunscreen-slathered athletes will leap and spike and dig in a venue set up ... on Horse Guard's Parade, an errant jump serve from the rear garden wall of 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives. Lil' help!
Both the men's and women's fields will be filled with 24 two-person teams, to be divided into six pools of four teams.
SPORTS EXPLAINERS: BEACH VOLLEYBALL
After round-robin play, the top two teams in each pool, plus the two best third-ranked teams, advance to a 16-team, single-elimination round. (The other third-place teams proceed to a "knockout round," with the best two making into the Round of 16, at which point the format becomes single elimination.)
Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, U.S.: The band is back together. After winning gold in Athens and Beijing, Walsh and May-Treanor took time off to pursue other interests (Walsh started a family, May-Treanor ruptured her Achilles practicing for Dancing With The Stars). They're reunited, and it feels ... different. Their first-place finish at a tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland, in early July was their first win in 11 months. While they're certainly in the gold-medal mix, the 30-somethings go to London ranked third in the world. They've had big trouble beating ...
Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva, Brazil: The talented duo was a top-three seed in Beijing ... until Silva withdrew on the eve of the Games with a knee injury. Since Walsh and May-Treanor reunited, they've consistently lost to the Brazilians, who appear to have their number. Franca and Silva come into London on a roll, after winning the Grand Slam in Berlin in mid-July. In the finals, they beat the up-and-coming team of ...
Xue Chen and Zhang Xi, China: Bronze medalists in Beijing four years ago, they come into London ranked No. 2 in the world.
Phil Dalhausser, Todd Rogers, U.S.: Like Walsh and May-Treanor, they won gold four years ago, and like their compatriots, they'll have a tougher task repeating. Rogers is 38, and has lost an inch or two off his vertical leap since Beijing. Dalhausser, however, is six years younger, and is still 6-foot-9. After winning their first two events of the season, they seemed to fade, recently flaming out in the round of 16 at the Grand Slam Berlin, a tournament won by ...
Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti, Brazil: A year older than Rogers, Rego will be playing in his fifth Olympics. He won gold in Athens, and bronze four years ago after being upset in the semis by another Brazilian team. A reserved defense specialist, he is ideally paired with Cerutti, 13 years his junior, a superb athlete who excels in blocking. World champions in 2011, they are the men's team to beat in London.
Such is the depth of the American program that it wouldn't be surprising to see either the men's or women's No. 2 team -- Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal, and Jen Kessy and April Ross -- on the podium. Kessy and Ross are dark horses. Gibb and Rosenthal would be less of a surprise; they finished the season on an impressive roll, winning a pair of Grand Slam events. In both finals, they beat the top seeds from Brazil.
Showing sensitivity to different countries' cultural and religious beliefs, the International Volleyball Federation has announced new regulations stating that women are no longer required to compete in bikinis. Shorts and sleeved or sleeveless tops are now acceptable.
Aug. 8: Women
Aug. 9: Men