When the Olympics needed to get away from it all, they took a beach vacation. Twenty miles south of Olympic Stadium, at a man-made beach as appealing and artificial as the sport itself, the Olympics found an oasis in beach volleyball. Even the gold medal ceremony honoring the legendary Karch Kiraly and his partner, Kent Steffes, seemed more festive than self-consciously important as His Excellent Dudeness, Juan Antonio Samaranch, showed up in lenses that were tinted (even if they weren't Killer Loops). If Samaranch had only ditched his black brogues, who knows, maybe he would be pushing for bungee jumping at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Sand between the toes can be marvelously therapeutic.
The inaugural Olympic beach volleyball tournament offered a little bit of everything: from 15 SPF sunscreen to 16-ounce beers, which allowed fans who fled the city to get oiled or to get oiled; from the Brazilian silver medal team of Monica and Adriana, which was on a first-name basis with the world, to a U.S. women's team whose partners were effectively on a last-name basis with each other.
The second-best thing about the competition was that the four women finalists were all girls from Ipanema, while the four men's finalists were all beachboys from Southern California, the two places on earth that most cherish this confection of a game. The best thing was that the players don't have shoe contracts.
Not that there wasn't a dress code at Atlanta Beach. Everyone was expected to show at least a little skin, something the Secret Service man accompanying the totally cool Chelsea Clinton on the opening day obviously forgot. Sir, if you insist on wearing a brown glen plaid sports coat to the Olympics, you might as well hang out at fencing.
And take a peek at Holly McPeak of the U.S., who was asked about the breast enlargement she had done early this year. (So far the subject of breast enlargement has not come up at kayaking, Softball or any other Olympic competition.) This was not just a prurient query. The issue seemed noteworthy because the procedure had been rumored to be a source of friction between McPeak and her partner, Nancy Reno. The iconoclastic Reno, a Mother Jones-type who once wound up in hot water while playing for the U.S. national indoor team when she drew a peace symbol on her water bottle, said last week that the surgery was never an issue, although she noted that the sport was trying to get away "from the T & A image." However as McPeak's business partner, Reno thought McPeak should have informed her ahead of time. The pair had split up and reunited twice since last October—partner swapping is so rife in beach volleyball that it seems like the suburbs in the 1970s—but the timing of their separations, with Atlanta looming, was troublesome. When asked about their relationship before the start of the tournament, Reno assured everyone that things were swell and added, "That story, is as old as O.J." Well, the Juice didn't convince absolutely everyone either. Moments after being put out of the double-elimination event by fellow Americans Linda Hanley and Barbra Fontana Harris, McPeak said she and Reno would play with other partners on the pro tour. And have a nice life.
Women's gold medalists Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires, the irrepressible Brazilians, scored a victory for constancy. Legend has it that Silva, a 34-year-old two-time Olympian in indoor volleyball and one of the best setters to play the game indoors or out, discovered her partner one day on a Rio de Janeiro beach, as if Pires, now 23, were Lana Turner and Ipanema were Schwab's Drugstore. Actually Silva found Pires through the Brazilian volleyball federation and has nurtured her for three years, through good times and bad, with the Olympics in mind. Silva says that when they played in the final of the world championship in Rio in February, they didn't even speak on the court. "The whole country was telling us to please stop fighting," Silva said. "They were writing articles about how we should be talking to each other. She has all the answers. She says what she wants, and it makes me mad. But I was the one who had to go to her. I said, 'Sandra, please talk to me. Even if you have to fake it.' "
There was nothing contrived about their 12-11, 12-6 victory in Saturday's final over countrywomen Adriana and Monica, who go by their first names. (The gold and silver awarded to the two teams were the first Olympic medals ever won by Brazilian women.) The frenetic Silva dug shots out of the trucked-in sand while her yellow-shirted countrymen in the stands rollicked as if this were Carnival. Beach volleyball, more a game of angles and guile than raw power because sand robs players of about a foot of vertical jump, seems ideally suited to the Brazilian sense of playfulness.
"The swing," Silva answered when asked why Brazilian women take so naturally to the beach game. You mean the arm swing on a spike? "No, the swing," she said, swiveling her hips samba-style.
Things were a little more businesslike on the men's side. Kiraly became the first three-time gold medalist in Olympic volleyball history on Sunday as he and Steffes, the most dynamic player in the tournament, performed impeccably in a 12-5, 12-8 victory over Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh, also of the U.S. For Kiraly, who quit the national indoor team in 1989, the beach has been not merely a chance to earn a healthy living—he has won more than $2 million in prize money—but also an opportunity to return to his roots. Before he became a national hero as an outside hitter in the Los Angeles Olympics, he already was on his way to cult status as a king of the beach. Kiraly played his first beach tournament at Corona del Mar, Calif., in '72, when he was 11. He and his father, Las, a freedom fighter who stared down Soviet tanks in Hungary in '56, made quite a pair on the sand. You could win neat trophies and T-shirts then. In the mid-'70s you could even begin making a little money at it.
In its thumbnail history of the beach game, USA Volleyball lists the important occurrences in the sport's development. The sponsorships by Jose Cuervo and Miller Brewing Company and the first telecasts on NBC are all red-letter events, the marriage of sponsorship dollars and exposure that the beach game needed to grow. The five-ring seal of approval was the final step; the decision by the IOC to let beach rats like Kiraly and Steffes track sand all over its carpets surely owed something to the fact that NBC owns the rights to televise both the beach volleyball tour and the next three Summer Olympics.