Beach volleyball the great leveller

Martin van Beynen
Martin van Beynen

One important question arises for me from these sensational Olympic games.

Is women's beach volleyball the ultimate Olympic sport?

Let us confront the main objection to this sport right up front.

It is said repeatedly that women's beach volleyball is simply a disgraceful opportunity for men to ogle attractive young women wearing bikinis in pretence of an interest in what is really a silly beach sport.

Or to put it in a slightly different way, beach volleyball is a stupid game played by narcissists and watched by voyeurs.

This is to malign what I would argue is a noble and demanding sport which embodies all we love about the Olympic ethos - to display the human body under stress, as attractively as possible.

It is not beach volleyball's fault that it lends itself to the athletic supermodel body type. Obviously sporty women who are tall, fit and move quickly across a sandy environment are going to excel at beach volleyball.

It cannot also be blamed for the fact that its most suitable attire is a bathing suit, which not only displays the beauty of the human form as it rolls around in the sand, but also allows maximum unrestricted movement.

It is one of the few sports where the display of skin can be completely justified by its technical requirements.

Critics also need to remember beach volleyball has far less exhibitionism than many other Olympic sports. Take sprinting for instance. Only a few years ago sprinters stood at the starting line and modestly waved to the crowd when they were introduced.

At these Olympics, the top running guns all have an idiotic routine ranging from fingers walking to glaring at the camera, as if the pre-race posturing is the event rather than the actual race.

Sprinters also used to wear shorts. Now they wear tight bike shorts which, if worn in the street, would invite an indecent exposure charge. So let's not get too precious about the skimpiness of the uniforms worn by volleyball players.

A sport should be loyal to its origins. Volleyball is a beach game, it is played on sand and it would quite unacceptable to deny the sport's origins by requiring the players to wear something foreign to the beach.

Anyone who has watched a lot of beach volleyball will understand the strategy and control for mental dominance this complex game entails. Comparisons can be drawn with chess. Like chess, the more you watch women's beach volleyball, the more you appreciate its intricate manoeuvres, its subtleties and how what the contestants wear is neither here nor there.

The skill and athleticism on display are just as impressive as the physiques and let us not ignore the courage and endurance required. Throwing yourself on a sand in a skimpy costume is not for the fainthearted. Enduring the gaze of millions as you make your signals behind your pert buttocks requires a bravery of which few are capable.

I am not sure beach volleyball would be as successful if it were played by women with a shot putter's body shape, but a team consisting of two Valerie Adamses would, I am sure, command a large audience, as long, of course, as officials had remembered to enter them.

It is true that men's beach volleyball does not have quite the same appeal as the women's game. But isn't this quite refreshing.? How often does male sport overshadow female sport? Can anybody, for instance, remember who won the 100m women's sprint at Beijing? Perhaps we need to celebrate this victory for women's sport rather than dismissing it as yet another example of a sport where a woman's attractiveness is the benchmark.

Perhaps the real brilliance of beach volleyball is that it is fundamentally a game that brings both spectators and participants back to the very basics of sport. How many of us did not start our sporting careers throwing things around a sandpit? One of my earliest memories is hurling myself on the sand of our sandpit to stop my sister's apple hitting the dirt after she fumbled it and sent it flying into the air. I remember skidding along the sand reaching out and catching the apple in one hand, and then shaking the sand from my skimpy outfit.

I cannot ignore some trenchant criticism of photographers covering beach volleyball. There is an unwholesome concentration on the backsides of the players. I agree that the photographers should be ashamed of themselves. Other parts of the beach volleyballers' anatomy are just as deserving of attention.

In the end, women's beach volleyball is indisputably the ultimate spectator sport for New Zealanders. We have no entrants in this fight and we can sit back, enjoy the sport's innate integrity and not worry about any potential heartbreak.

The Press