Perhaps because the topic is so loaded, the WPVA has been careful not to cultivate a beach-babe image. As a result the spectators at matches have been much less boisterous. "The men's tour still has more of a party atmosphere," McPeak says. "People drink beer and rock out to loud music. You have women in the crowd who get all dolled up to impress the guy players, and then guys who come out to check out the women. Our crowds are much more sedate, and that's a shame."
McPeak is quick to point out that at the 1996 Olympics the atmosphere at the beach volleyball venue, which was used by both women and men, was rowdy and festive. But again, there were Baywatch overtones. Much of the U.S. media coverage of women's matches focused on reports that McPeak, a 27-year-old with a perfectly sculpted build, had received breast implants, and on the nasty feud between then partners McPeak and Nancy Reno, who make Pamela Anderson Lee and Gloria Steinem seem compatible. Formerly the world's No. 1-ranked team and a favorite for the gold in Atlanta, McPeak and Reno struggled to a fifth-place finish, and all three U.S. women's teams failed to medal.
But the U.S.'s loss was the world's gain: Two Brazilian teams, Jackie Silva-Sandra Pires and Adriana Samuel-Monica Rodrigues, won the gold and the silver, respectively, becoming the first women from their country ever to medal in the Olympics. It made them cult heroes in Brazil, where even prominent U.S. players have long been besieged by autograph seekers. "You need bodyguards to walk from the arena to the hotel," says U.S. Olympian Barbra Fontana Harris, who six years ago put a career as a civil-defense lawyer on hold to play on the WPVA tour. "And Jackie Silva is like Madonna there." Samuel, a former indoor player who has extensive modeling experience, says Brazilian audiences are more comfortable with the idea of athletes clad in revealing uniforms. "People in Brazil are a lot more at ease with showing their bodies," she says. "Women walk the streets in bikinis or skimpy outfits. It's an accepted part of the culture."
The U.S. women players would gladly settle for the same degree of acceptance their male counterparts enjoy. "Of course men's beach volleyball is sexy," says WPVA player Patty Dodd, who should know—her husband, Mike Dodd, is a longtime AVP star who won a silver medal in Atlanta. "Ninety-five percent of the guys have great bodies, and they're wearing the minimum." Interjects Hanley, "Well, not quite the minimum."
"Men's volleyball sells sex, and it does it effortlessly, without being judged, whereas our game is much more shy about it," McPeak says. "That has to do with societal differences between the sexes. Men aren't uncomfortable being perceived as sexy, because no one questions their legitimacy as athletes. With women athletes, there's always the question of whether we're sex objects who aren't being taken seriously."
While McPeak, who grew up playing on Manhattan Beach's fabled Marine Street courts, is hardly shy about showing her body, the 6'3" Reece is surprisingly self-conscious. She plays in a jogging bra and men's running tights. "That way," she says, "I can dive, spread my legs and not worry about it at all." The majority of players wear sporty two-piece bikinis or one-piece suits.
Reece has a marketing acumen that rivals that of Sanders, who is still a friend and a fellow Nike client. In addition to her modeling stardom, she became a hero to the extreme-sports crowd as the host of two TV shows, MTV Sports and The Extremists, on which she performed gonzo activities such as Whitewater kayaking, drag racing, skydiving and road luging. She has sponsorship agreements with Oakley sunglasses and Coppertone and has helped design five lightweight cross-trainer shoes for Nike. A book on her career, Big Girl in the Middle, is due out later this year.
That's quite a portfolio for someone who has yet to prove herself on the more prestigious WPVA tour, though her attainments in the four-person game cannot be disputed. She has led the WBVL in kills in each of the past four seasons, was the Offensive Player of the Year in 1994 and '95 and was the leader in blocks in '93. Though there is a small streak of jealousy toward Reece, most players regard her commercial success as a blueprint for what the sport must do to increase its popularity. "There doesn't have to be such a complete division between 'You're beautiful and sexy' and 'You're athletic and strong,' " Hanley says. "The Reeboks and the Nikes are starting to realize that the athletic body is sexy, and Gabrielle Reece has a lot to do with that." Even Rock, one of the more staunch feminists on ,the tour, says, "It's good that the most recognizable name in volleyball is a woman. Unfortunately, she's not a three-time gold medalist, like Karch Kiraly is. She's fashion model Gabrielle Reece. But it's a start."
Because of her modeling, Reece hardly needs the income that beach volleyball provides. But she is committed to promoting the sport and is even interested in assuming a leadership role in it when her playing career ends. She has some strong opinions on how to improve women's volleyball, beginning with consolidation of the two tours into a single, larger one. A few years ago, the WPVA survived a two-year war with the AVP, which had launched a competing women's tour. Now Reece says, "We should be set up like tennis, because neither tour is strong enough alone to get to the next level. We could have twos and fours at the same event, just like tennis has singles, doubles and mixed doubles." By the same token, she and other players would like to see the creation of grand-slam-caliber tournaments at which the men's and women's tours would converge, a concept that WPVA tour director Le Valley Pattison says is in the works. And Pattison says that an admission fee, another change advocated by Reece, is likely to be instituted in the next couple of years, though probably for the center-court matches only. "Part of a sport's appeal is that it's a little bit unattainable, and we need to create that aura," Reece says. "People believe that if you pay for it, it's worth something. Sometimes beach volleyball is still sort of backyard."
Of all the players on the WPVA, Hanley understands why. A protégée of fabled beach player Nina Matthies, who along with Kathy Gregory dominated the pre-WPVA game, Hanley remembers playing matches mostly for pride. "The losing team of the previous game had to ref the next match," Hanley recalls. "I'd play for dinners at The Charthouse and T-shirts, and I'd have a crowd of friends hanging out for the finals, because they knew if I won $500, I'd buy the beer. Now that we're bigger, I want to reap some of the benefits."