The game was invented in Southern California in the 1920s, on
the beaches of Santa Monica. The early players competed for
beer, dinners, bragging rights. The early tournaments were named
after the days of the week: the Friday-night game, the
Sunday-afternoon game. Last week beach volleyball moved five
miles inland from its ancestral home and the players competed
for $600,000. The Beach Volleyball World Championships were
played at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA, on 2,700 tons
of sand trucked in for the occasion. In L.A. they know how to
build a set.
And how to populate it with beautiful people. In a twist on the
usual rules of decorum, only spectators in tank tops and short
shorts were allowed in the Tennis Center, or so it seemed. The
bodies on display in the stands served as extraordinary
testimony to the benefits of vegetarianism, Rollerblading and
cosmetic surgery. On the courts there was more of the same:
mile-long legs, stomachs as taut as Al Gore's face, jawlines you
could cut a finger on. None of the competitors, male or female,
had a receding hairline, in accordance with the international
rules for beach volleyball.
Not that the world championships were some sort of beauty
contest. Not at all. Anyone who thinks that beach volleyball
players aren't real athletes should walk a mile in their.... No,
that doesn't work. Anyone with said doubts should dive after a
spiked ball, land on his chest, catch a little piece of the ball
with his fingertips--Good up!--leap to his bare feet, sprint to
the net while swallowing sand and jump at precisely the correct
moment to return the favor to the opposition. The winners of the
men's competition were Para de Souza and Guilherme Marques from
Brazil. They defeated two Americans, Canyon Ceman and Mike
Whitmarsh. The winners on the women's side were Sandra Pires and
Jackie Silva, the same feisty Brazilian duo who won the gold
medal last year at the Olympics in Atlanta. They defeated Holly
McPeak and Lisa Arce of the U.S. Each winning team received
$60,000 (second place was worth $42,000, and even the 16th- and
17th-place finishers got $3,400 for their trouble).
At the Olympics, beach volleyball was a medal sport for the
first time, and it was a hoot and a hit. But it wasn't a true
test of the best players. Bickering over who would get to
control the sport--the Association of Volleyball Professionals,
or AVP, as the U.S. men's pro circuit is generally known, or the
Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), the game's world
governing body--led to a dubious qualifying process for Atlanta
that left some of the world's best players at home. Last week's
championships promised to be the first meeting of all the best
players, though it, too, threatened to break down at times
because of petty haggling.
The AVP, run by Nancy Kerrigan's husband, Jerry Solomon, wanted
its official ball, made by Wilson, used in the championships.
The president of the FIVB, Ruben Acosta of Mexico, refused to
sanction the tournament unless it was played with his
federation's official ball, made by Mikasa. Acosta won, but no
friendships were forged.
"They had a contingent of five cars at the airport to pick up
[Acosta] tonight," Solomon said last Friday. "They all call him
Doctor. I don't." (Acosta has a Ph.D. in law.)
"Jerry has been very, very difficult," Acosta said the next day.
"But he's learning fast."
With Acosta and Solomon at odds, the entire concept of the Beach
Volleyball World Championships was in jeopardy until a diplomat
emerged in the form of Tom Feuer, an executive at Nike, whose
Sports Entertainment division ran the event. Once Feuer
established detente between the FIVB and the AVP, another force
emerged on the scene, Leonard Armato. Armato is Shaquille
O'Neal's agent. He is also McPeak's boyfriend, a business
partner of the Women's Professional Volleyball Association
(WPVA) and a copromoter of last week's event. If you want to
talk about how--in the phrase of the moment among sporting
entrepreneurs--to grow the game, Armato's your man. On Saturday
morning, running around the Tennis Center in white bucks, a
white linen suit and a white T-shirt, Armato was having a grand
time, at least until his girlfriend and Arce were defeated in
the women's final. The 5,500-seat stadium was only two-thirds
filled for that match, but Armato was telling anybody who would
listen that the future of beach volleyball is off the beach and
"To watch beach volleyball at the beach, you have to schlepp
across sand, roll up your pants and try to find a place to sit,"
Armato was saying. "Corporate America isn't going to do that.
And you need corporate America if you're going to grow the game."
You're also going to need television. The four days of
competition, which concluded on Saturday, were a TV director's
dream: blue skies, white sand, bronzed bodies. Quite telegenic.
On Sunday afternoon, NBC showed two hours of the championships
on tape, with Bill Walton as sideline reporter, and it was a
The Nike swoosh was everywhere, of course: on the undersides of
flipped-up visors, on sunglasses, on the cross-straps of
sandals. One of the few places the swoosh was missing was on the
rakes used to smooth the sand between games. Nike doesn't make
rakes. The Midwest Rake Co. does. Its YardPRO model was much in
At the world championships men and women were paid equally, but
it didn't seem quite fair, really, since the women play a more
engaging game than the men, with longer rallies and more obvious
emotion. The women's final was spectacular. Silva and Pires,
seeded third in the 32-team, single-elimination tournament, won
the first game 12-11. McPeak and Arce, the No. 1-seeded team,
dominated the second game 12-1. That forced a third game, in
which a point is scored on every serve. The game was tied at 4
each, then at 6, then 8, then 9. When the Brazilians took an
11-9 lead, Arce and McPeak called a timeout. The music came up.
The music faded out. When play resumed, the U.S. team won the
next point, and then Arce went back to serve. She tossed the
ball and leaped. A jump serve. A risky, aggressive play that can
result in an ace. This time her serve landed in the net. Game,
match, dream over. "Seeing Brazil win like this, it gets old,"
Not, of course, for the Brazilians. Beach volleyball is a
national pastime in Brazil, whereas in the U.S. the game is
played intensely only in Southern California and a few other
In the men's final Whitmarsh and Ceman won their first game
handily, 12-5, but lost 12-8 in the second. In the tiebreaker,
digs that are normally routine for Whitmarsh escaped him.
Ceman's serve, ordinarily a bullet, lacked its usual zip. The
two Americans lost 12-10. Quite a day for Brazil. As if Rio
needed another reason to throw a party.
"I believe the Americans are the best volleyball players in the
world," Silva said afterward. "But today the Brazilians were
best." She is irresistible, a true sport, a wonderful athlete,
feisty on the court, modest off it.
While Silva spoke to reporters, two young girls waited outside
the pressroom, pantomiming Silva's serves, her digs, her high
fives, mimicking her every move. The girls were turning an
athlete into an icon. You want to grow the sport, watch the kids.