- 22 Aug 08, 01:41 PM
Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground & Capital Gymnasium, Beijing
And, having watched my first slice of the ball-and-bikinis game on Thursday (a day that Manchester in February would be disappointed with), I can confirm beach volleyball has mood-enhancing qualities.
But volleyball's bosses are probably over-egging it to suggest the sport was born for any historical reason. I think people started playing beach volleyball because they could - which reminds me of that old joke about dogs and certain parts of their anatomy.
Quite simply, beach volleyball is fantastic. It's old-school indoor volleyball I'm not so sure about. But before I get to that, let's have some background.
A New Yorker called William G. Morgan invented volleyball (although he called it "mintonette") in 1895. A year later, another American, Alfred T. Halstead, saved the sport from ridicule by coming up with the name of volleyball. This was a huge step as there is no way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would have agreed to beach mintonette.
The next half-century saw the sport slowly spread to most corners of the globe, and by 1947 it was time for FIVB to spring into life. World championships followed but it wasn't until 1964 that the sport took its Olympic bow.
Recent years have seen the volleyball tweak its rules to make things a bit more exciting and the inexorable growth of its sandy offspring. The key date is July 1996, when beach volleyball packed them in at the Atlanta Games.
It was even more popular in Sydney, no doubt helped by Australia's run to gold in the women's event, and it was soon clear the student had outgrown the master.
In many ways, the strangest thing about beach volleyball as an Olympic sport is that the IOC agreed to it. This is an organisation, after all, that thinks dressage (Strictly Come Prancing) has a place in an international multi-sports event in the 21st century - and before you email in, I'm not knocking it for equestrian competitions, I know it is a supreme test of horsemanship.
By saying yes to beach volleyball, the IOC wasn't just agreeing to a few tonnes of sand and a hundred extra athletes: it was giving the green light to cheerleaders, loud music and a running commentary from a bilingual Ali G. I'm not sure this is entirely what Baron de Coubertin had in mind.
But beach volleyball's biggest weakness is also its biggest strength: the game is played by fit, young things in their swimming costumes. Actually, that's wrong. The game is played by fit, young women in their swimming costumes. The men get to dress like Australians.
This has led to some critics suggesting the sport is more suited Club 18-30 than the Olympics, and many Islamic countries have chosen not to embrace it for precisely this reason.
That, of course, is their prerogative but for the rest of us I've got news - beach volleyball is no more salacious than half a dozen sports here (have you seen women's high jump or pole vault recently?). Not only that, the sporty bikinis make complete sense for what they are doing, namely, flinging themselves around in the sand. The women, in fact, can wear less revealing, one-piece costumes if they want, but choose not to.
And what all of this completely obscures is that we are talking about highly trained, incredibly talented, full-time athletes. The feeling that you have wandered into a party at the Playboy Mansion by lucky accident doesn't last long and you're soon wrapped up in the ebbs and flows of a dynamic sport.
The game I watched - the women's final - had a bit of everything as it pitted the defending champions, the US partnership of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, against the coming force in beach volleyball, the Chinese pairing of Tian Jia and Wang Jie.
It was the first time at these Games that teams from the US and China had met in a gold-medal match, and it was played in a deluge. So we had the surreal scene of a packed Chaoyang stadium, clad entirely in pastel-coloured pac-a-macs, watching four women in bikinis attempt to recreate Santa Monica.
"Everybody in Beijing wants this ticket!" screamed the Ali G-alike in English and Mandarin, before reacting to a blocked spike with the immortal putdown, "Not in my house!"
The scoring was tight, with the American pair opting for power (particularly the long-limbed Walsh), while the Chinese duo mixed up their spikes with some angled dinks. Tian, playing in her third Olympic competition, was having a blinder, repeatedly retrieving lost causes or setting up her taller partner Wang at the net.
But it was the Americans, unbeaten for 107 matches, who came up with the big points when it mattered. And before too long they had wrapped up a 21-18 21-18 victory and a second Olympic title.
In the run-up to the final Walsh and May-Treanor hadn't always sounded as gracious as they might but in the post-match press conference they were politeness personified. Beijing was neat, the fans were wonderful and their opponents were great and will get better. They even had a quip about the weather.
"That's another reason we wear our swim suits," said May-Treanor.
The Chinese started off a bit glum but cheered up as the compliments came in from the champions. They also spoke about this being a breakthrough tournament for the sport in China - their second team beat Brazil to the bronze medal - and I think they might be right. There was a full-page, colour advert featuring Tian and Wang on the back of China Daily's main section today - I can't remember anything similar for the country's numerous winners in shooting or weightlifting.
I also can't imagine anything similar for their indoor volleyball compatriots, who lost their women's semi-final in straight sets to Brazil later on Thursday. It's not there was any disgrace in that defeat, the South Americans are a fine team and got better as this match went on, or that the players on the squad are any less lovely than Tian and Wang. It's the sport, that's the problem.
Indoor volleyball is a great game to play (many are the rainy Wednesdays I remember playing volleyball, or something similar, in the school gym as a youngster) and it's an OK game to watch. It's just not as good as beach volleyball.
It's almost as if the game Morgan invented was meant for the beach, not the hard floors of a gymnasium. Cricket, football and rugby on the beach are a laugh but they're not improved as contests by the shifting surface. Volleyball is, though. Being able to dive head-long at the ball without fear is liberating.
A player as skilled as Tian is too short for indoor volleyball, with its near total focus on height, but can operate on sand. And May-Treanor was a superb indoor player before quitting the national team because it wasn't "fun anymore".
The pace of beach volleyball is better too, and the players don't seem to feel the need to get together for a hug every 30 seconds, although I suppose with just two of them it would get a bit odd.
No, I'm a beach volleyball man all the way. And not for the reasons you think. That's what the cheerleaders are for and they appear every five minutes. Even in the rain.
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