"There's definitely a clash of cultures, of image, with the Olympics," Kiraly says. "Ours is a lifestyle sport. You hope you don't lose touch with what the game used to be like, and we have to walk a fine line between the growth of our sport and maintaining a tie with our tradition. My dad has a classic Super 8 home movie of a tournament in Santa Barbara. The referee's on a ladder, drinking a beer, and my dad scans the beach and then comes back to the referee, except the ref and the A-frame ladder have come tumbling down. Even less than 10 years ago, if you lost, you had to ref the next game."
Kiraly and Steffes's march through the field was mostly Shermanesque, although the two of them did nearly get upended in a quarterfinal match against Sinjin Smith, the 39-year-old beach legend, and his partner, Carl Henkel. This was the most widely anticipated match of the tournament, in large measure because of a political clash between Kiraly and Smith, onetime partners. (If there's one thing the Olympics tell us, it's that the more obscure the sport is, the more rabid the politics are.) In brief, Smith's team received an automatic Olympic berth because it played on the tour of the International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB), the sport's sanctioning body, while Kiraly, who remained loyal to the domestic Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour, had to go through the Olympic trials to get to Atlanta. In a riveting my-alphabet-can-beat-your-alphabet match, Kiraly and Steffes prevailed 17-15. Kiraly said before the Olympics that Smith and Henkel weren't among the top eight American pairs but graciously recanted after his narrow escape.
The final against Dodd and Whitmarsh, fellow AVP members, was both collegial and surgical. Early in the first set Steffes and Kiraly figured out ways to circumvent the 6'7" Whitmarsh's blocks at the net and started cruising. They dug out a generous number of balls, rarely squandered chances for points and invented shots, including a 50-foot backward bump by Steffes that landed on top of the net and trickled over for a point. After Steffes ended the match with a stuff block, the four players hugged. "I'm very happy for Karch and Kent," Whitmarsh said later. "They've been the dominant team for four or five years. If you lose, you want to lose to the best. Besides, Karch Kiraly has done more for volleyball than anyone I know."
Take beach volleyball away from Atlanta or Sydney in 2000 and put it in a nation with less of a beach culture, and a game that is inseparable from its ambience might be diminished, a carny booth at an otherwise august five-ringed circus. "But at least they gave us a chance to prove whether we're boring," Kiraly said. The six days of raucous cheers, fun in the sun (and occasional rain) and the medals from the Boss himself were pretty much QED to that problem.
No, Atlanta loved its respite from the Serious Games, and the only people who should worry are those Olympic volleyball players who don't need sunblock. Indoor volleyball, which never again will be known as real volleyball, is going to have to find some flourishes of its own to keep pace with the upstart California game.
Any suggestions to tart up the indoor game, Karch? "I'd truck in some sand, open the roof, get rid of four players and have the other two take off their shirts."