The game was invented in Southern California in the 1920s, on the beaches of Santa Monica. The early players competed for beer, dinners, bragging rights. The early tournaments were named after the days of the week: the Friday-night game, the Sunday-afternoon game. Last week beach volleyball moved five miles inland from its ancestral home and the players competed for $600,000. The Beach Volleyball World Championships were played at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA, on 2,700 tons of sand trucked in for the occasion. In L.A. they know how to build a set.
And how to populate it with beautiful people. In a twist on the usual rules of decorum, only spectators in tank tops and short shorts were allowed in the Tennis Center, or so it seemed. The bodies on display in the stands served as extraordinary testimony to the benefits of vegetarianism, Rollerblading and cosmetic surgery. On the courts there was more of the same: mile-long legs, stomachs as taut as Al Gore's face, jawlines you could cut a finger on. None of the competitors, male or female, had a receding hairline, in accordance with the international rules for beach volleyball.
Not that the world championships were some sort of beauty contest. Not at all. Anyone who thinks that beach volleyball players aren't real athletes should walk a mile in their.... No, that doesn't work. Anyone with said doubts should dive after a spiked ball, land on his chest, catch a little piece of the ball with his fingertips—Good up!—leap to his bare feet, sprint to the net while swallowing sand and jump at precisely the correct moment to return the favor to the opposition. The winners of the men's competition were Pará de Souza and Guilherme Marques from Brazil. They defeated two Americans, Canyon Ceman and Mike Whitmarsh. The winners on the women's side were Sandra Pires and Jackie Silva, the same feisty Brazilian duo who won the gold medal last year at the Olympics in Atlanta. They defeated Holly McPeak and Lisa Arce of the U.S. Each winning team received $60,000 (second place was worth $42,000, and even the 16th-and 17th-place finishers got $3,400 for their trouble).
At the Olympics, beach volleyball was a medal sport for the first time, and it was a hoot and a hit. But it wasn't a true test of the best players. Bickering over who would get to control the sport—the Association of Volleyball Professionals, or AVP, as the U.S. men's pro circuit is generally known, or the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), the game's world governing body—led to a dubious qualifying process for Atlanta that left some of the world's best players at home. Last week's championships promised to be the first meeting of all the best players, though it, too, threatened to break down at times because of petty haggling.
The AVP, run by Nancy Kerrigan's husband, Jerry Solomon, wanted its official ball, made by Wilson, used in the championships. The president of the FIVB. Ruben Acosta of Mexico, refused to sanction the tournament unless it was played with his federation's official ball, made by Mikasa. Acosta won, but no friendships were forged.
"They had a contingent of five cars at the airport to pick up [Acosta] tonight," Solomon said last Friday. "They all call him Doctor. I don't." (Acosta has a Ph.D. in law.)
"Jerry has been very, very difficult," Acosta said the next day. "But he's learning fast."
With Acosta and Solomon at odds, the entire concept of the Beach Volleyball World Championships was in jeopardy until a diplomat emerged in the form of Tom Feuer, an executive at Nike, whose Sports Entertainment division ran the event. Once Feuer established detente between the FIVB and the AVP, another force emerged on the scene, Leonard Armato. Armato is Shaquille O'Neal's agent. He is also McPeak's boyfriend, a business partner of the Women's Professional Volleyball Association (WPVA) and a copromoter of last week's event. If you want to talk about how—in the phrase of the moment among sporting entrepreneurs—to grow the game, Armato's your man. On Saturday morning, running around the Tennis Center in white bucks, a white linen suit and a white T-shirt, Armato was having a grand time, at least until his girlfriend and Arce were defeated in the women's final. The 5,500-seat stadium was only two-thirds filled for that match, but Armato was telling anybody who would listen that the future of beach volleyball is off the beach and into stadiums.
"To watch beach volleyball at the beach, you have to schlepp across sand, roll up your pants and try to find a place to sit," Armato was saying. "Corporate America isn't going to do that. And you need corporate America if you're going to grow the game."
You're also going to need television. The four days of competition, which concluded on Saturday, were a TV director's dream: blue skies, white sand, bronzed bodies. Quite telegenic. On Sunday afternoon, NBC showed two hours of the championships on tape, with Bill Wilton as sideline reporter, and it was a beautiful thing.