Perhaps you've noticed while watching the Olympics on television that there are empty seats here and there, like thousands of them at gymnastics, which is usually overrun with people, and thousands of them at boxing and at women's basketball games. Well, let me tell you about a place where there aren't any empty seats, where folks are dancing in the aisles, where the biggest party in Athens is taking place every night, beginning sharply at 7.
If you're in search of tension, judges' scores, angry crowds, runners heaving all over the place, competitors seized by nerves, or anorexic little waifs who ought to be strapped down and fed cheeseburgers intravenously, then do not under any circumstances come to see beach volleyball. This is the place where they stop the game to introduce someone dressed as Spider-Man to the sound of Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray!" This is the place where players dare not hit a serve until the music stops, where people do the wave in slow motion. It's the place that sits on a little patch of land right off the Aegean Sea, where if you're sitting in just the right place you can see the lights from cruise ships leaving for the next port in contrast with the pink sky just after sundown. This is the place with decidedly healthy women competing -- oh, yes -- and where 12 orange bikini-wearing dancers called the "Fun Girls" do the conga and a whole lot of other stuff between matches. It's the venue filled on this particular night mostly by Brazilians and Australians, undoubtedly the two most party-prone peoples on the face of the earth, singing and waving flags and it looks like -- oooh -- taking off their clothes!
"It's not beach volleyball without a crowd like this," Kerri Walsh of the United States said. "This is what we do every weekend. But here we do have a great venue. It's a testament to whoever set this stadium up. We've got the Fun Girls, the music. You have no choice but to have fun here, whether it's 95 degrees in the middle of the afternoon or 80 with the sun down. Everybody here seems to have a passion for whatever they do."
The Olympics can be separated into those who take this and themselves far too seriously, who live for judges' scores and political drama and news from the IOC, and those who plan to play hard, live with the results and get right to Piraeus for a midnight dinner on a Monday.
Yes, there's serious Olympic competition going on at beach volleyball. I swear it. I just watched the Brazil team of Adriana Behar and Shelda (what, a Brazilian needs a second name?) defeat the Aussie team of Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson in straight sets to advance to Tuesday night's gold medal match. (Note to my editors: Now that I spent all day developing beach volleyball sources, I simply must be assigned to do a follow-up column.) Under normal circumstances I'd have been rooting for the Aussies because Sanderson is, well, yummy. But she nastily insulted the Fun Girls earlier in the competition as being "a little bit offensive," then Monday night spiked the ball into the middle of their dance routine. Sanderson, I remind you, is a woman whose bikini bottom is the width of dental floss.
And after the Brazilians won, we were treated to U.S. vs. U.S.: Kerri Walsh and Misty May vs. Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs. McPeak has been at times the best in the world at what she does. But after breaking up with May following a disappointing fifth-place finish in Australia, McPeak has had to watch as May and Walsh have piled up a 53-2 record since July 5, 2003. And the two losses were forfeits a couple of months ago, when May couldn't play because of an abdominal injury. I think you'd like May. She carries her late mother's ashes around in a prescription bottle. Stop, I'm not kidding. She showed the ashes to a couple of us Monday night. Said she had sprinkled a few ashes after beating McPeak and Youngs, and will probably sprinkle a few Tuesday before or after the gold medal game against Brazil. "This is probably just her right arm or leg," May said. Personally, I think this is a heck of a lot healthier than 12,000 people shaking their fists, whistling and shouting down a panel of judges to the point where the competition had to stop, as was the case at gymnastics Monday night. There's simply something about a sand pit, and glistening, mostly naked bodies that takes the edge off.
As long as I've mentioned glistening bodies, can we talk honestly for a moment? The topic hanging over these Games, particularly this venue, that nobody wants to talk about is sex. U.S. high jumper Amy Acuff, you might be interested to know, is gracing the cover (and inside pages) of the current issue of Playboy magazine. She has company. U.S. swimmer Haley Cope is in Playboy, too. Lauren Jackson, an Aussie (and WNBA) basketball player, took it off for an Australian magazine. Swimmer Amanda Beard, long jumper Jenny Adams, volleyballer Logan Tom -- they're all in some pretty skimpy pics in FHM magazine. (Magazines used to chase Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina to pose nude, but that was before she became positively skeletal.)
Hey, there are plenty of sweaty and presumably hunky guys posing for magazines, too; you're just not going to read about them in this space. A few overly righteous American women sportswriters have rained on the whole thing, which will not change for one second the fact that people watch the Olympics in part for the sports and in part to see who's hot. So let me get this straight: It's all right for the Aussie water polo babes to offer $500 to the first one among them to kiss U.S. tennis star Andy Roddick, but it's not okay for me to have my work space here papered with photos of French sprinter Christine Arron or Russian swimmer Stanislava Komarova, who upon winning her event looked into the camera and blew a kiss?
Maybe today's athletes are doing all this simply to honor the Greek Olympians who came before them, quite naked, centuries ago in the ancient Games. Maybe they all should show up at 7 Tuesday night at beach volleyball and join the Fun Girls in the conga line, where the less they wear, the more at home they would feel.