Beach Party What separates beach volleyball from the rest of the Games is the good-time atmosphere, even when fierce competition breaks out

October 01, 2000

This is the one sport that just won't be crammed into the Olympic
format, all sober and cutthroat. Beach volleyball resists that
movement entirely, going the other way, enforcing a sense of fun
that other sports have long since abandoned. They play Mantovani
at gymnastics? You'll hear Sex Machine at the beach. Imagine:
Here's a game in which the swimsuits can only be so big, where
the sexuality is legislated and not denied.

There's nothing like it at these Games, where the arena is
situated on a gorgeous slice of white sand called Bondi Beach,
alongside a funky surf town, and where sight lines include both
surfers and (if you're in the top row and so inclined) topless
sunbathers. The music is loud and persistent, piping up--however
briefly--whenever a point is concluded (creating a kind of rock
and roll Name That Tune). Deejays, destroying the sense of
propriety that the Olympic experience imposes everywhere else,
race around the court, conducting waves, cheers and sing-alongs.
The sun beats down, and the women dive for balls and, all
bikinied and sandy, stand tall and wonderful, looking a little
like breaded cutlets sometimes.

It remains so true to its California origins, all fun and games,
that it's hard to imagine anything ruining the sense of play. How
can you take beach volleyball seriously? What, somebody tested
positive for Coppertone?

Still, since the game is essentially on loan from a pro tour
that (like the Olympics) is hardly immune to financial
incentive, the play can be pretty fierce. Monday's gold medal
match between the Brazilian powerhouse of Adriana Behar and
Shelda Bede and Australia's reunited Kerri Pottharst and Natalie
Cook was an example of how competition can burst through even
beach volleyball's veneer of tomfoolery.

This was the Brazilian duo, after all, that has dominated the
sport, especially Australia, over the past three years and had
rebuffed Cook and Pottharst in 14 of their 17 meetings. These two
teams had cruised toward one more meeting during a week of play
that saw both U.S. women's teams go down in the quarterfinals.

In a big surprise, the U.S. men fared better, with ninth-seeded
Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana defeating Brazil's Ze Marco and
Ricardo to win the gold medal. Also a surprise was the upending
of Behar and Bede by Cook and Pottharst, whose relationship has
been, if not exactly tumultuous, uneasy. After settling for
bronze in Atlanta four years ago, Cook, 25, had split with
Pottharst, 35, chafing in her "little sister" role. But,
realizing they remained Australia's two most talented players,
they agreed to reteam a year ago.

Still, their partnership needed more than chemistry. The two
hired a "success coach," who made them walk across hot coals and
broken glass and surround themselves with all things gold. "Let's
see," said Cook, "I have gold toothpaste, gold shampoo...It's
ridiculous, isn't it?"

What was really golden, though, was Pottharst's 53-mph serve, the
fastest in Olympic history. On Monday, when the Bondi sky turned
uncharacteristically gray ("Our sunglass sponsor won't be happy,"
said Pottharst) and the winds blew a chill even into the
rollicking sandbox beneath the clouds, Pottharst scorched the
sand with six aces. The Australian pair needed them because
Brazil kept building leads, 11-8 in the first set before giving
way at 12-11, and then going ahead 7-3 in the second. The two
crawled back again, with Pottharst serving aces to make it 9-10
and, later, 11-10 on the way to a 12-10 victory.

With the home-country team coming back to upset its archrival,
the match was almost Olympian, in both effort and drama. Then the
music kicked in, and lots of people in two-piece swimsuits
started running around in the sand. You could look out and see
the big boards riding the surf and realize, with relief, that
it's still beach volleyball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. CASTLE IN THE SAND The Bondi scene includes nonstop rock and nontop sunbathers. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY DIGGING FOR GOLD After settling their differences, reunited Aussies Cook (above) and Pottharst won the sizzling women's final.

How can you take beach volleyball seriously? What, somebody
tested positive for Coppertone?