BEIJING -- I went to a beach volleyball match, and a truce broke out.
There was no blood on the sand at Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground. Unlike the infamous "Blood in the Water" water polo match in the 1956 Olympics between Hungary and the Soviet Union that played out against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution and 20,000 Soviet troops rolling into the country, the beach volleyball match between Georgia and Russia -- contested hours after the warring countries had agreed to a cease-fire in a conflict that began about the time the nations were marching at the opening ceremonies -- was an absurdist exercise in sport and the nationalism of convenience and rock 'n roll.
There was more tension when Harry met Sally than when Georgia met Russia. In lieu of blood there were pre-match hugs, a dance team in blue bikinis, snippets of
The only even remotely hostile acts were the three military helicopters that flew high over the stadium at 14-14 in the second set, and Saka's violent retching on the sidelines late in the match. If diplomacy is war by another name, then beach volleyball is the Olympics designed by a Dada-ist.
Anyway, the surface story of Wednesday's preliminary-round match might have carried more emotional heft -- Moscow's invasion of Georgia to help the ethnic Russian rebels in South Ossetia, with its faint echoes of Germany in the Sudetenland in 1938 -- if Saka and Rtvelo, born
"Of course, they're Brazilian,"
That is a canard.
Saka and Rtvelo are less Georgian than
Still, the tumultuous and tragic events of the past few days -- as weighty as beach volleyball is sporting gossamer -- have truly touched Saka and Rtvelo. Like most of the world, almost everyone this week was Georgian. Why should they be different? The forces of geopolitics and world history have made two Brazilians more profoundly Georgian than they ever could have imagined.
"I really felt I was representing Georgia," Saka said. "I don't want to get political because this is a game. But in my heart, I wanted to beat Russia for sure."
Two days earlier, she and Rtvelo had returned to the village from the volleyball venue and found most of the 35 Georgian athletes outside their rooms. Many were in tears. The athletes were preparing to bolt Beijing, to throw away their Olympic dreams and return home.
"If I had my family [there] and know they'd be bombed or something, I don't think I could concentrate on the Games," Saka said. "I could be like, 'Why I should go home because I would go to Brazil?' but my first thought was, 'Let's go,' because I felt bad because I knew they had family back there. My first thought was supporting them."
With the bags all but packed, the Georgians received a message from their president: stay.
"I am president of the [volleyball] federation and I know it's better to stay here," said
He was speaking about the Russian duo of
"I have one message to everyone: to make a war, to make a battle, on the sporting fields, not outside the sporting fields," he said. "It is very important. I send this message to everyone who is involved in this -- believe me -- crazy war. Once again, [beach volleyball] is a sport. Today we win. We was close to lose, [but] fortunately God help us. And I think in the future God help Georgia."