Beach volleyball a hit Olympics: U.S. trials here this week and admission to Summer Games are evidence of sport's popularity.

June 03, 1996|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN STAFF

When the 1992 Olympic Games were played in Barcelona, Spain, beach volleyball was literally an afterthought. Shortly after the flame was extinguished, shortly after the millions of athletes, officials and fans went home, an international tournament was held some 200 miles away.

"That," said Sinjin Smith, "was our demonstration phase."

In the four years since, a game that once was played exclusively on the beaches of Southern California has become something of an international phenomenon. Next month in Atlanta, it will reach new level of acceptability when it is played for the first time in the Olympic Games.

What much of the world has witnessed -- from the beaches of Rio to a sand court inside Madison Square Garden -- will come this week to Baltimore, when the men's and women's U.S. Olympic trials will be held at the HarborView Complex. The matches will begin tomorrow and run through Sunday.

"I have never seen a sport grow so fast," Angelo Squeo, who coordinates the sport's international tour, said last week from the International Volleyball Federation headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Squeo, a former professional indoor volleyball player in Italy, points to the staggering figures: from 15 countries with national federations three years ago to 50 this year, from prize money of $1.2 million two years ago to $4.3 million next year. That doesn't include the two American tours, which account for another $5.5 million in prize money, much of it generated from title sponsors Miller beer and Evian water.

"It's certainly an important property," said Miller Brewing Co. spokesman Mark Abel, whose company provides $1 million in bonus pool money alone to the men's Association of Volleyball Professionals. "The atmosphere surrounding the lifestyle is attractive, but as soon as you see the game, it absorbs you."

Another indication of its popularity was in the demand for tickets in Atlanta: Of the 27 sports being played, only gymnastics and track and field sold out faster. It won't hurt that NBC, which holds broadcast rights to the Games, has televised the men's event since 1991.

"I thought there was a chance it might be played in 1992 [at the Olympics]," said Smith, half of the first American men's team to have qualified before the trials. "But this is usually a much longer process. We were incredibly lucky to get into any Olympics."

Smith credits Ruben Acosta, president of the sport's international federation, for bringing beach volleyball to the Olympics. It took less than four years to get the International Olympic Committee to vote it in, but the seed was planted more than a decade ago.

In 1985, Brazilian sports promoter Fernando von Oertzen invited Smith and Pat Powers to play in a local tournament. Von Oertzen, who played the game while attending USC, helped get the international tour going, and Acosta became one of its biggest supporters.

"There was such an immediate success putting on international events," said Smith, "that I'm sure what he [Acosta] saw was an Olympic sport."

The biggest problem was, and to a large extent still is, in its perception. Was beach volleyball merely a California cult game played by glistening hard-bodies and viewed mostly by middle-aged men who liked to hoist a few beers and watch all available reruns of "Baywatch"? Or was it a grueling sport that required its athletes to have the endurance of marathoners?

The reality remains a bit fuzzy. Though the attire provides for, shall we say, maximum exposure, it certainly doesn't take away from the athleticism needed to succeed. But the sport's promoters also theorize that a little titillation won't hurt anybody.

" 'Baywatch' is the No. 1-rated show in the world," said John Carroll, executive director of USA Volleyball.

Carroll, a former minor-league pitcher, said he has grown to appreciate beach volleyball. Not so much as an extension of the indoor game -- "The Big Game," Carroll calls it -- but as an entity unto itself. He said that indoor volleyball would be more popular if it "had John Madden with a telestrator explaining strategy to people."

Beach volleyball doesn't need John Madden; it has Holly McPeak. Though McPeak won't be in Baltimore -- she and on-again, off-again partner Nancy Reno already have qualified for the Olympics -- her presence will be felt. She is to beach volleyball what Jan Stephenson was to women's golf 20 years ago.

McPeak has tried to play down the fact that as many fans come to ogle her and some of the other women as to watch them play. She maintains that the bikini she wears is nothing more than an appropriate uniform for a game played on sand. "When I go to the beach, I wear a bathing suit," she said. "If I wore a big T-shirt, it would get in the way."

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