The sun is shining, wispy clouds float in the baby-blue sky and a cool breeze blows off the Mediterranean, where bright white yachts bob gently up and down. Here in the Olympic beach volleyball stadium, draft Heineken is flowing at the concession stand and the DJ has cranked the sound system up, pumping out tiny snippets of song to fill every break in the action.
That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh!
Down on the court, Mariano Baracetti of Argentina dives after an impossible shot and somehow reaches it with a finger or two, popping it into the air. His teammate, Martin Alejo Conde, punches the blue-white-and-yellow ball high into the sky while Baracetti leaps out of the burning sand, launches himself above the net and slams the ball past his Portuguese opponents for a perfect spike.
"Mariano Baracetti is on fiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrre!" the announcer screams.
Para bailar la bamba!
Somebody calls a timeout. Volunteers scurry out to rake the court. And here come 10 gorgeous women in tiny orange bikinis, doing a vigorous hootchy-cootchy dance in the sand near the rakers. But wait. Maybe the bikinis aren't orange. Maybe they're peach or salmon. It's hard to tell because they're so small and they're moving so fast, bouncing, shaking, shimmying like crazy.
Is this a hallucination -- the product of too much sun, too much Heineken? You close your eyes, then open them again. Nope. The dancing girls are still there, still shaking. The fans in the stands are up and dancing, too.
C'mon, baby, let's do the twist!
Ah, beach volleyball! It's a beer commercial of a sport. It's a Jimmy Buffett song. It's a "Girls Gone Wild" video. It's a Dionysian tribute to the joys of sun, sand, sex, and escape from the wretched indoor world of offices and other places where you're actually expected to wear shoes and a shirt.
Celllllll-ebrate good times -- come on!
Beach volleyball has been an Olympic sport since 1996, but it's more than a sport: It's a spectacle, a lifestyle, a great excuse for a party. Which doesn't bother the players at all.
"It gets pretty rowdy but I think it's good for the sport," said U.S. Olympian Elaine Youngs a few minutes after she and her partner, Holly McPeak, won their first match Saturday. "I compare it to golf and tennis. Their fans are bored. We give the fans something more to watch."
"The fans are enjoying to watch something else besides the game," says Kathrine Maaseide, captain of the Norwegian duo that lost to Youngs and McPeak. "I think some people don't like the dancing girls and the way they dress but -- " she shrugs her sweaty, sandy shoulders -- "we're on the beach. It's different."
That's the standard explanation for the eccentricities of beach volleyball. "It's the beach, you know," says Angelo Squeo, the Italian who runs beach volleyball for FIVB, the international volleyball governing body. "You go to the beach and you want to enjoy a great party atmosphere."
Beach volleyball was born on the beaches of Southern California in the Roaring Twenties, a wild child spawned by the unlikely mating of traditional indoor volleyball -- a game haunted by collective memories of stale school gyms and old sweat socks -- and the hedonistic, narcissistic SoCal beach culture. It's a game of two-person teams on a smaller court in the sand.
Here at the Olympic Beach Volleyball Centre, on the Greek coast about four miles south of Athens, it's easy to observe the contrast between indoor volleyball and beach volleyball. In the indoor arena, only about a mile away, the six-person teams play under fluorescent lights in air conditioning. There's no blaring rock music, no dancing girls, no dancing fans, no Heineken. The announcer is as dignified as a judge, and when a player dives for a ball, a squad of anal-retentive volunteers scurries out to wipe the sweat spot, then hustles off-court. They are, needless to say, fully clad in shorts and polo shirts.
Meanwhile, back at the beach, the announcer howls like Wolfman Jack when he introduces the American team -- "Hollyyyyyy McPeeeeeeeeek!" -- then cuts to appropriate music:
"American woman -- mama, let me bee-eeee!"
"The indoor game is appealing, but on the beach, the whole thing is more fun," says McPeak. "A lot of indoor players are, like, 'Wow! We want to play out on the beach!' "
Jeff Nygaard is one player who quit his indoor job and escaped to the beach. After playing on the U.S. Olympic indoor volleyball team in 1996 and 2000, Nygaard got disgusted with what he considered the excessive regimentation.
"It seemed like the biggest concern was whether our shirts were tucked in or our hats were on backward," he says. "It just started being a job."
He shucked that job in 2000, headed to Los Angeles and took up beach volleyball. He found it tougher than the indoor game. "If you're not accustomed to playing in sand," he says, "you get dead tired within five minutes."
Now he's teamed up with Dain Blanton -- who won the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics with Eric Fonoimoana -- and loving it.
"Playing is fun again," Nygaard says. (At least that's what he said before the team lost its first two matches in the preliminaries, and Blanton told reporters: "The Olympics is a big tournament and some people don't know how to handle it.")
But enough about the players. What about those amazing dancing girls in the orange -- or peach or salmon -- bikinis?
They're out on the court again, shaking their spectacular stuff with enough energy to hit about 9.5 on the Richter scale. It's the kind of performance that gets you in touch with your inner dirty old man, and calls into serious question the whole concept of monogamy, matrimony, the whole morality hoo-ha.
Shake! Shake! Shake!
Who are these women? America wants to know.
Up in the press section -- where the international sporting media keep a close eye on the dancers -- there are conflicting rumors. They're Russians. No, they're Spanish. It's time to find out for sure.
But it's not easy.
Ask the beach volleyball PR people if you can interview a dancing girl and they just laugh: Oh, you want to interview them, heh-heh. Finally, Jonathan Fogarty, the announcer who chose this dance team, reveals that they're from Spain's Canary Islands and they're kept on a very close leash by their chaperon.
"They're all fairly young and attractive and far from home," he says in his Aussie accent, "so they probably require a lot of chaperoning."
He summons the chaperon, a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who casts a cold eye on this American who wants to speak to her dancers. Finally, she relents and permits a brief audience with Vanessa Diaz, 24, the only dancer who speaks any English.
Diaz is in a cool, dark tunnel down under the stands with the rest of the dancers, watching the match, waiting to perform. She smiles, shakes hands, offers a seat. She's wearing that orange bikini. Her long hair is jet black. You could drown in her dark chocolate eyes, except that you're distracted by the cute little diamond stud that sits above her perky red lips. You don't dare look any lower than that for fear that you'll be instantly struck blind or simply burst into flames, another tragic victim of spontaneous human combustion.
So, Vanessa, are you excited about being in the Olympics?
"Very, very excited," she says, smiling. "We have happiness in all the group."
Why does beach volleyball have dancers? Indoor volleyball doesn't have dancers.
She listens, squinting quizzically, amazed that anyone could ask such a silly question.
"Because beach volleyball is a show," she says. "Beach volleyball is a special thing -- summer and sun and music. It's play in the sun for the holidays."
She looks down the tunnel. She's getting a signal.
"I must to go," she says. She runs out into the sand with her colleagues and they begin to shake, shake, shake.
Up in the stands -- where many of the several thousand spectators are dancing, cheering and waving the flags of various nations -- a cluster of American fans is going wild. The other American men's team, Dax Holdren and Stein Metzger, is battling a tough pair of Aussies. Each team has won a set and the third, decisive set is neck and neck.
"USA!" the American fans chant, waving a flag. "USA!"
One of them is Ned Hosford, 22, a student at the University of Colorado. His shirt is off and Heineken sloshes in his belly as he dances to the rock music. He's having a great time.
"I love it," he says. "I was just wandering around and somebody said, 'Oh, you should go to beach volleyball. They got a DJ and it's a big party.' They were right."
"Clap your hands, Athens," the announcer bellows. "This is a party! This is the Olymmmmm-pics!"
Hosford stands up and claps to the music. So does Megan Pappas, 21, an English major at the University of Florida. "This is great," she says, swigging on a Heineken. "Everybody's partying. Look at that guy dancing."
She points to a shirtless, sunburned American who's standing on his seat a few seats back, boogieing wildly if not particularly skillfully.
It's match point. "Put it away, USA!" the American fans chant. "Put it away, USA!"
Serve, volley, spike. The Americans win.
"USA! USA! USA!"
Now the music swells. The dancing girls run out and start boogieing. The American fans are boogieing too, and singing along.
Hey, hey, baby! I wanna know-o-o-o, will you be mah girl?