The great Olympic beach bash
If Pierre de Coubertin went down to the beach today, he'd be in for a big surprise.
The founder of the modern Olympic movement was as fond of spectacle as the next man. But at the beach volleyball stadium here, the Games' showbiz aspects are reaching new heights.
To start with, there are cheerleading Brazilian beauties, flown in to gyrate on the touchline before, during, and after every match. Then there is the music: While Coubertin favored massed bands and national anthems, beach volleyball pipes in crowd favorites, such as KC & the Sunshine Band grunting "that's the way ... uh huh ... I like it."
But he would have to admit that the event - part beach party, part rock concert - has injected welcome energy into Athens, where athletes in more decorous sports have often been competing in front of empty stands. Buoyed by its growing legions of young fans, beach volleyball is one of the few events to sell out night after night, regardless of whether or not a Greek team is playing.
"This is a lot more fun, a lot more alive," said Christine King a high school teacher from Chicago, at a match the other evening. As she swayed in her seat to the strains of Queen's "We Will Rock You," she added, "The Olympics are becoming more fan friendly with spectator participation."
Not that such participation is always entirely spontaneous. Sometimes last Thursday night - as when a Brazilian men's pair was playing Daxton Holdren and Stein Metzger of the United States - the crowd's attention wandered, and it was sharply reminded of its duty.
"Pay attention," the master of ceremonies barked over the PA system before issuing instructions on just how he wanted the crowd to perform a wave. There was some halfhearted fluttering of hands, but the effort merely distracted people from the match point the Brazilians were about to win.
Yet the distractions from the sporting action seemed to be half the fun for most of the spectators. Greeks are not particularly enthusiastic sports fans, in the way that Australians are, for example, and they appreciate a few extra attractions.
At one point in the first game, with Brazil leading the US 12-9, play suddenly stopped inexplicably, the music was turned up, and the court was invaded by the dancing girls shaking their hips.
"Technical timeout," the scoreboard explained, which turned out to be a euphemism for a commercial break. (Beach volleyball has proved popular with TV viewers around the world too, especially in the US.) The interruption offered the emcee another chance to bellow exhortations that the crowd should sing along with "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Doo," and it gave the players a brief opportunity to towel off and take a break.
For behind all the theatrics, there was no doubt that the athletes were world-class sportsmen and women - leaping, lunging, smashing the ball in dramatic spike shots, and sprawling in the sand after desperate defensive digs.
The top-ranked US women's team, for example, comprises Misty May and Kerri Walsh, both former members of the US indoors volleyball team who have switched to the beach version in the past five years. Apparently immune to the hoopla surrounding them, they were clearly taking their game as seriously as any other Olympian on Thursday night, as they made their way toward an expected gold medal.
Their exertions appealed to Maria Daskalakis, a grandmother who said she had come to the match only because a relative couldn't make it and had a ticket. Although she had never watched a game of beach volleyball in her life, she was enjoying herself.
"I did not expect this," she said, as a boisterously partisan crowd rattled the stadium with foot stomping in support of a pair of Greek women, and the theme from "Zorba the Greek" echoed deafeningly around her. "But I'm glad I came. I like the atmosphere, and the people are so warm."
Michael Zlotos, a student from Athens, agreed with her as he filed out of the stadium at the end of the night. "It's fast, it's impressive, and you don't get bored" even if you're not a fan, he said, unlike the baseball game he had attended the night before.
"It is not only the match that you watch," he added, "it's the songs and the people that are fun. This is more than the Olympics."