For Georgia, The Beach Is a Place Of Respite

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- Revenge pranced on the sand in bare feet and matching teeny red and white bikinis on Wednesday morning. Over and over the ball fell and Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Martins sprawled across the ground, their arms flying, voices shrieking. They had lost the first game but were winning now, winning for Georgia, against two players from battlefield adversary Russia. It was nothing more than a preliminary round beach volleyball match but high up in the stands several giant men in the gray vest that makes Georgia's official sports uniform danced in the aisles, pumped fists and howled.

On a plaza just outside the Chaoyang Park beach volleyball ground, Santanna and Martins were surrounded by media as they tip-toed toward the locker room after their 10-21, 22-20, 15-12 victory over Alexandra Shiryaeva and Natalia Uryadova. A swarm of reporters four and five deep carefully wielded cameras and microphones and tried not to step on the feet of Georgia's newest sports darlings. The two women laughed and preened for the cameras. The nation's Olympic team spokesman, Giorgi Tchanishvili, held a Georgian flag behind Martins's back and chanted: "Geor-gia! Geor-gia! Geor-gia!"

Then came the reporters' questions.

No Georgian interpreter needed. No forced answers in broken English about strife in their war-torn homeland.

Santanna and Martins do not speak Georgian. They were not born in Georgia nor raised in Georgia nor have any relatives in Georgia. They, in fact, have barely been to Georgia. Santanna and Martins are from Brazil. They are in Beijing because the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, asked them to play for his country in the Olympics. Upon learning that Saakashvili's wife, Sandra Roelofs, was once a volleyball player, they agreed. For this they have been granted dual citizenship.

At the end of Wednesday's victory, Santanna hugged Shiryaeva and Uryadova. When asked why at a news conference, she said, "I wanted to show that the Olympics are above politics and I wanted to show a sign of peace."

Next to her sat her two Russian opponents, appearing bewildered over how a beach volleyball match had become a metaphor for sport over war and somewhat uncomfortable at suddenly being cast as Cold War-era Soviet villains.

"We are not playing the Georgian team, we are playing against our Brazilian friends," Shiryaeva finally said through an interpreter.

The fact that Santanna and Martins are not from Georgia did little to dampen the euphoria. There had been little for the Georgians to look forward to earlier in the week.

Early Saturday morning, as Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, a plane stood ready to whisk the country's delegation of 35 athletes back home. Many wanted to leave China and return to their families, said the country's sports minister, Nikoloz Vacheishvili. But as plans were being made to abandon Beijing, a meeting was called in the Athletes' Village. Roelofs, the president's wife, wanted to address them.

They anxiously gathered in the room, several of those who were present recalled, expecting to be given the word to depart. Instead, she said she had spoken to her husband. He said the country needed the Olympians to stay. They would be Georgia's inspiration.

"If we go back we will be disqualified from the Olympics," said Nino Kachlisvili, an official with the Georgian delegation. "We won't be able to compete in the Summer Games or the Winter Games."

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