ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA, JULY 26 -- Beach volleyball in Russia? Beach volleyball in a land where the mercury dips to 40 degrees in mid-summer? Beach volleyball in a country virtually bereft of beaches?
Except for a few slivers of sand along the Black Sea and Gulf of Finland, this is a country known more for its turf than surf. No matter. The Russian passion for the sport is undiminished. In fact it's a favorite hobby of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, wedded to the game as an outgrowth of his better-known love of tennis.
"I hear he's quite a good player," said Ted Turner, in the stands today with his wife, actress Jane Fonda, and St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak for the medal competition. Turner, who originated the quadrennial Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986, decided to import the quintessential California beach bum sport.
Making its debut in the Goodwill Games, beach volleyball has turned out to be the smash sleeper hit of the 17-day extravaganza. And if the frantic excitement of the fans here is any clue, the sport has secured a permanent spot in the international sports arena. It will be a medal sport for the first time in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In the gold medal round today, America's undefeated team of Karolyn Kirby and Liz Masakayan clinched the gold. The U.S. men's squad came up short against Norway in a match that featured some long and dramatic rallies.
Unlike many of the sparsely attended 117 events here, which have been priced out of reach of the average Russian worker's salary, beach volleyball has drawn a wild, standing-room-only crowd for each of the four days of competition in front of the beautiful Peter and Paul Fortress.
If the old Soviet leaders had worried about the lures of the West, then the import of Southern California culture must be their worst nightmare come true -- a tanned, bare-toed and totally groovy proletariat hitting the beach like a capitalist tsunami. From the swimming suits and hovering blimps to the billboards advertising Reebok, Pepsi, Nestea, Gatorade, Budweiser and Snickers, the unabashed pleasures of American life were on display everywhere.
As American fans looked on from the bleacher seats ringing the two makeshift sandlots, beer-swilling Russian autograph-seekers lurched toward the sideline, clamoring for a chance to meet American superstar Sinjun Smith, the winningest player in the history of the sport with 135 titles under his belt.
The inexperienced Russian men's team, dressed in pink polka dotted shorts and Oakley sun glasses, finished sixth, but the Russians demonstrated power in blocking shots. The Americans and Norwegians displayed deftness in setting up their spikes at the net.
The makeshift sandlot here stands in sharp contrast to the long silk strips of beach in Southern California. To build it, several tons of sand were trucked into the weedy lot outside the Peter and Paul Fortress, a massive bastion built on Hare Island in the River Neva by order of Peter the Great shortly after he captured the island from the Swedes in 1703.
"It's a beautiful site," said Smith's partner, Bruk Vandeweghe, brother of former National Basketball Association star Kiki Vandeweghe and son of a former Miss America. "You couldn't have a more picturesque site."
The U.S. team now flies back to California. But in the middle of St. Petersburg's beautiful Nevsky Prospect, just across the river and beyond the Winter Palace, a giant flashing neon Pepsi sign stays, crowning the center of this beautiful imperial city like a neoclassical Times Square.
Notes: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, nearly disqualified and bothered by an asthma attack, won her third straight Goodwill heptathlon title today -- with the lowest winning score of her career.
Joyner-Kersee, the world record-holder, was almost tossed out of the competition in a controversy when her javelins became wet after a spectator accidentally spilled a liquid, apparently beer, on them. She took them to be inspected by the officials, explained what had happened and the javelins were approved for use.
In javelin competition -- as in the discus and the shot put -- any approved implement goes into a pool for use by any athlete in the competition.
Upon seeing her javelins in the pool, Joyner-Kersee warned the other competitors that the implements were wet.
She did not use either of her two javelins, but referee Albert Kalin of Russia charged after the competition that she put the beer on them to get them sticky and get a better grip. Joyner-Kersee reiterated that she hadn't used her javelins, but Kalin told her she broke the rules and would be disqualified.
Her husband and coach, Bob Kersee, then talked to the officials and they relented. Joyner-Kersee was warned and allowed to continue.
The angry Joyner-Kersee finished the heptathlon by struggling through the final event, the 800 meters, running a distant last in 2 minutes 26.76 seconds, and was given an inhaler by Kersee for her asthma as she struggled off the track.
She finished with 6,606 points, her lowest total since she placed second in the 1984 Olympics with 6,520 points. ...
Meanwhile, world record-holder Mike Powell won the long jump with a wind-aided leap of 27 feet, 8 3/4 on his final attempt.
World record-holder Noureddine Morceli of Algeria ran the year's fastest time, 3:48.67, in winning the mile.
Not even two pacesetters could help Kenya's Moses Kiptanui break the world record in the 5,000 meters, but he won in a games' record 13:0.76.