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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

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

"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.

"There's definitely a clash of cultures, of image, with the
Olympics," Kiraly says. "Ours is a lifestyle sport. You hope you
don't lose touch with what the game used to be like, and we have
to walk a fine line between the growth of our sport and
maintaining a tie with our tradition. My dad has a classic Super
8 home movie of a tournament in Santa Barbara. The referee's on
a ladder, drinking a beer, and my dad scans the beach and then
comes back to the referee, except the ref and the A-frame ladder
have come tumbling down. Even less than 10 years ago, if you
lost, you had to ref the next game."

Kiraly and Steffes's march through the field was mostly
Shermanesque, although the two of them did nearly get upended in
a quarterfinal match against Sinjin Smith, the 39-year-old beach
legend, and his partner, Carl Henkel. This was the most widely
anticipated match of the tournament, in large measure because of
a political clash between Kiraly and Smith, onetime partners.
(If there's one thing the Olympics tell us, it's that the more
obscure the sport is, the more rabid the politics are.) In
brief, Smith's team received an automatic Olympic berth because
it played on the tour of the International Federation of
Volleyball (FIVB), the sport's sanctioning body, while Kiraly,
who remained loyal to the domestic Association of Volleyball
Professionals (AVP) tour, had to go through the Olympic trials
to get to Atlanta. In a riveting my-alphabet-can-
beat-your-alphabet match, Kiraly and Steffes prevailed 17-15.
Kiraly said before the Olympics that Smith and Henkel weren't
among the top eight American pairs but graciously recanted after
his narrow escape.

The final against Dodd and Whitmarsh, fellow AVP members, was
both collegial and surgical. Early in the first set Steffes and
Kiraly figured out ways to circumvent the 6'7" Whitmarsh's
blocks at the net and started cruising. They dug out a generous
number of balls, rarely squandered chances for points and
invented shots, including a 50-foot backward bump by Steffes
that landed on top of the net and trickled over for a point.
After Steffes ended the match with a stuff block, the four
players hugged. "I'm very happy for Karch and Kent," Whitmarsh
said later. "They've been the dominant team for four or five
years. If you lose, you want to lose to the best. Besides, Karch
Kiraly has done more for volleyball than anyone I know."

Take beach volleyball away from Atlanta or Sydney in 2000 and
put it in a nation with less of a beach culture, and a game that
is inseparable from its ambience might be diminished, a carny
booth at an otherwise august five-ringed circus. "But at least
they gave us a chance to prove whether we're boring," Kiraly
said. The six days of raucous cheers, fun in the sun (and
occasional rain) and the medals from the Boss himself were
pretty much QED to that problem.

No, Atlanta loved its respite from the Serious Games, and the
only people who should worry are those Olympic volleyball
players who don't need sunblock. Indoor volleyball, which never
again will be known as real volleyball, is going to have to find
some flourishes of its own to keep pace with the upstart
California game.

Any suggestions to tart up the indoor game, Karch? "I'd truck in
some sand, open the roof, get rid of four players and have the
other two take off their shirts."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS McPeak (left) sent hand signals behind her back to Reno, which was about the only way they communicated. [Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Silva (1), with partner Pires, got gold, and Monica and Adriana silver, the first medals ever for Brazil's women. [Jackie Silva blocking spike by Monica]

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK With his victory on the sand, Kiraly cemented his standing as the best Olympic volleyball player ever. [Karch Kiraly]