This is the one sport that just won't be crammed into the Olympic format, all sober and cutthroat. Beach volleyball resists that movement entirely, going the other way, enforcing a sense of fun that other sports have long since abandoned. They play Mantovani at gymnastics? You'll hear Sex Machine at the beach. Imagine: Here's a game in which the swimsuits can only be so big, where the sexuality is legislated and not denied.
There's nothing like it at these Games, where the arena is situated on a gorgeous slice of white sand called Bondi Beach, alongside a funky surf town, and where sight lines include both surfers and (if you're in the top row and so inclined) topless sunbathers. The music is loud and persistent, piping up—however briefly—whenever a point is concluded (creating a kind of rock and roll Name That Tune). Deejays, destroying the sense of propriety that the Olympic experience imposes everywhere else, race around the court, conducting waves, cheers and sing-alongs. The sun beats down, and the women dive for balls and, all bikinied and sandy, stand tall and wonderful, looking a little like breaded cutlets sometimes.
It remains so true to its California origins, all fun and games, that it's hard to imagine anything ruining the sense of play. How can you take beach volleyball seriously? What, somebody tested positive for Coppertone?
Still, since the game is essentially on loan from a pro tour that (like the Olympics) is hardly immune to financial incentive, the play can be pretty fierce. Monday's gold medal match between the Brazilian powerhouse of Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede and Australia's reunited Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook was an example of how competition can burst through even beach volleyball's veneer of tomfoolery.
This was the Brazilian duo, after all, that has dominated the sport, especially Australia, over the past three years and had rebuffed Cook and Pottharst in 14 of their 17 meetings. These two teams had cruised toward one more meeting during a week of play that saw both U.S. women's teams go down in the quarterfinals.
In a big surprise, the U.S. men fared better, with ninth-seeded Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana defeating Brazil's Z� Marco and Ricardo to win the gold medal. Also a surprise was the upending of Behar and Bede by Cook and Pottharst, whose relationship has been, if not exactly tumultuous, uneasy. After settling for bronze in Atlanta four years ago, Cook, 25, had split with Pottharst, 35, chafing in her "little sister" role. But, realizing they remained Australia's two most talented players, they agreed to reteam a year ago.
Still, their partnership needed more than chemistry. The two hired a "success coach," who made them walk across hot coals and broken glass and surround themselves with all things gold. "Let's see" said Cook, "I have gold toothpaste, gold shampoo.... It's ridiculous, isn't it?"
What was really golden, though, was Pottharst's 53-mph serve, the fastest in Olympic history. On Monday, when the Bondi sky turned uncharacteristically gray ("Our sunglass sponsor won't be happy," said Pottharst) and the winds blew a chill even into the rollicking sandbox beneath the clouds, Pottharst scorched the sand with six aces. The Australian pair needed them because Brazil kept building leads, 11-8 in the first set before giving way at 12-11, and then going ahead 7-3 in the second. The two crawled back again, with Pottharst serving aces to make it 9-10 and, later, 11-10 on the way to a 12-10 victory.
With the home-country team coming back to upset its archrival, the match was almost Olympian, in both effort and drama. Then the music kicked in, and lots of people in two-piece swimsuits started running around in the sand. You could look out and see the big boards riding the surf and realize, with relief, that it's still beach volleyball.