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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Nothing to Sell but the Sport Itself

Beach volleyball: Three U.S. women's teams win handily in an environment devoid of commercialism.

July 24, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JONESBORO, Ga. — Beach volleyball without the beach is nothing new, but beach volleyball without the tequila banners and the gigantic inflatable beer bottles?

In the midst of the Your-Company's-Name-Here Olympic Games, beach volleyball practically came off as pure Tuesday when it made its Olympic debut at a man-made beach 20 miles from downtown Atlanta and about five hours from the Atlantic Ocean.

Stripped across the bathing suit tops of Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno were only the letters USA. Linda Hanley carried a backpack, but the name of her sunglass sponsor was covered with masking tape.

The only banners that surrounded center court bore the green insignia of the Centennial Olympic Games, and the atmosphere was more tennis stadium than beer-fueled party.

"There's a difference," Reno said after she and McPeak easily won their first match, defeating a French tandem, 15-4, to stay in the winners' bracket of the double-elimination tournament.

"All the people here have been looking forward to coming for a long time. They didn't just go out for a day at the beach, find out there was a volleyball tournament and come over to watch for a while. It's kind of nice not to have the party atmosphere and have people a lot more focused on what's happening in the game."

To much of the world other than California and volleyball-mad Brazil, beach volleyball is still a curiosity.

Only two Asian countries--Japan and Indonesia--entered teams in the competition, and there is no representative from an African nation--the great beach volleyball potential of the Sahara notwithstanding.

The chief focus of player interviews tends to be whether their sport is "legitimate"--along with what the women simply call "the bikini question."

"I don't think that many people are asking Janet Evans what she thinks about her bathing suit," said Reno, a former doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado who is something of a feminist-environmentalist spokeswoman. "I certainly wouldn't want to be wearing anything but this out there. It has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with performance.

"If it's aesthetically pleasing, that's OK. It's no different from Flo Jo in her tights; she's beautiful. Whether it's Jackie Joyner-Kersee or whoever else, that's part of it."

The sport's appeal was clear as play began Tuesday, with a crowd of about 8,000 at center court, including Chelsea Clinton and a wonderfully raucous Brazilian contingent of about 40 drum-beating, trumpet-blaring, chanting, dancing, flag-shaking fans.

That was a mild display, compared to the crowds of 15,000 at matches in Brazil, said Gail Castro, who teamed with Deb Richardson to advance against the Netherlands, 15-4.

"They're the most annoying, and the most exciting," Castro said. "They're so jazzed, so fired up. Norway and Italy can be playing, and they'll be chanting, 'Mon-i-ca,' 'Adrian-a.' Two other countries will be playing, and they'll be saying their own players' names, "Jack-ie! Sil-va!"

Silva, who is seeded first in the tournament along with partner Sandra Pires, also advanced easily, beating an Indonesian pair, 15-2.

The men's competition began Tuesday as well, but none of the three American teams play until today. That left the stage to the American women on what Barbra Fontana Harris said was "probably the biggest day for beach volleyball since its inception."

"I was there in the old days playing for T-shirts and dinner," said her partner Hanley, 36, after the two beat a Norwegian team, 15-8, in their opening match. "To not only make a living in the sport but to be in the Olympics in beach volleyball, you can't ask for anything more."

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