COPACABANA BEACH — The first time I saw beach volleyball at the Olympics, it seemed utterly ridiculous. Well, it was in Atlanta, so, no, that’s not exactly a beach volleyball sort of town.
But more than the location, the Olympics were different then. Stodgy. Ancient. This was before the influx of more modern events, before the triathlon was an Olympic sport, before trampoline, before Taekwondo, before BMX bicycle racing. This was before the X Games became mainstream, back in the days when Olympic sports were meant to conjure up a different time, a long ago time, a time of fencers and archers, rowers and canoers, Greco-Roman wrestlers and marathon runners.
Then, suddenly, 1996, and you had men and women in swimsuits frolicking around in a makeshift beach while an entire stadium full of people danced the Macarena around them. Here was longtime IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch wearing a suit and doing the wave. Here were DJs blasting a few seconds of happy music in the seconds between points. Here was a caffeine-infected announcer pumping up the crowd after each point to let us all know the sheer awesomeness of it all.
“Synchronize your watches because you are about to become a part of HISTORY!” he shouted as it started. “You are about the see the first beach volley gold medal match in HISTORY!”
He said history. Twice. History. Hastings. Waterloo. Antietem. Normandy. Atlanta.
Funny thing is, here we are 20 years later and you know what? That guy was more right than wrong. Beach volleyball has fundamentally changed the Olympics. Saturday night, there was another Olympic first – the first ever midnight beach volleyball game at the Olympics. It featured the now-legendary Kerry Walsh-Jennings, and it was on perhaps the most famous beach in the world, and it was so happy and energizing and wonderful that, yes, it embodied what you would like to believe is the sporting spirit of the Olympic Games.
Here’s something they do during beach volleyball matches – opponents high-five each other when they switch sides. OK, no, it isn’t always a “Whoo, yeah, love you man!” high five, sometimes – especially if one team has made a significant run – the high-fives can be a bit limp. But most of the time, there’s joy behind the high-fives, a sense of “Look at us! We’re playing beach volleyball at the Olympics! Isn’t this great?”
That’s part of the beach volleyball energy, part of its vibration. Hey, they’re playing volleyball on sand by the ocean. What is not to love about this? Sure, everyone wants to win – and win badly – but how can you not stop to just appreciate the laughter and cheerfulness and wonder of it all? Who could have seen it but beach volleyball has become the very expression of Pierre de Coubertin’s famous Olympic plea: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is now winning but taking part.”
Then there’s the athleticism. It was something I admittedly missed the first time – I was too blown away by the Macarena (that was the first time I had seen it. Little did I know it would become the bane of every father-daughter dance I would ever attend). You watch the best beach volleyball players in the world play, and you can miss or forget that they’re doing it on sand. I don’t need to tell you this: It’s HARD to move on sand. I was reminded of this just walking across a small patch of sand to get to the Beach Volleyball Arena – it took me forever. The sand in Brazil is particularly fine, like powdered sugar, and so the ground is constantly shifting and moving under your feet. You feel like in that dream where you’re running as fast as you can but you aren’t going anywhere. Now imagine running, diving, getting up, running more, jumping and spiking in the matter of three seconds, all with on this powder. It’s crazy.
Kerri Walsh-Jennings, you probably know, is trying to win her fourth Olympic gold medal in the sport. She is not doing it this time with her longtime collaborator Misty May-Treanor, who retired after the 2012 Games. She has instead joined forces with April Ross, who won silver in London (Ross and her partner Jennifer Kessy lost to Walsh-Jennings and May-Treanor in the gold medal match).
They are pretty spectacular together, Walsh-Jennings and Ross. They are both ferocious finishers. They feed off each other well. Saturday night/Sunday morning they pretty well crushed the Australian team of Mariafe Artacho Del Solar and Nicole Laird, with Walsh-Jennings dominating at net (her constant rejections followed by the pulsating sounds of a song that goes “Monster block! Monster block!”).
And in a quirky way, it felt like the first big moment of the Games. True, it was just a preliminary match. And yes, there were other more important moments, a couple of world records set in swimming, an American teenager Ginny Thrasher shocked everyone by winning a shooting gold medal, Brazil advanced to its first every men’s gymnastics team final and so on.
But here, there was perhaps something even a little bit more. It took 20 years for beach volleyball to get here, to a midnight match on Copacabana Beach while everyone danced to that Justin Timberlake “Can’t Stop the Feeling” song that has taken over the summer.
“I think from the beginning this game has been electric,” Walsh-Jennings says. “The world has embraced it especially on the Olympic stage … This sport provides so much inspiration and aspiration for so many people.”
It does. And fun. That’s probably the best part. It’s like beach volleyball reminded everyone that, yes, the Olympics are the biggest, most expensive, most controversial, most important and most overwhelming sporting event on earth. But hey, the Olympics also can be fun.