Beach volleyball a popular spectator sport

Updated: August 16, 2004, 8:35 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

ATHENS, Greece -- A bikini-clad team of cheerleaders at the Olympic beach volleyball tournament are not proving popular with everyone.

Fans arriving at the Olympic Beach Volleyball Center by the Greek coast on Saturday were greeted by the sight of 12 women wearing skimpy, orange bikinis and dancing up a storm in the sand.

Australian player Nicole Sanderson was not impressed. "It's disrespectful to have other girls in bikinis out there dancing," she said while her partner, Sydney gold medalist Natalie Cook, said that if there were men out on the court dancing it could equal things out.

Organizers admit they use dancers in bikinis and sex appeal as much as athletic ability to sell the sport -- a demanding two-on-two form of volleyball made even more difficult by playing on sand.

It has worked.

Ever since it debuted as a medals sport in Atlanta in 1996, beach volleyball has been one of the most popular spectator sports of the Games -- in part due to the bikinis worn by women players and the muscle-baring singlets for the men.

At Bondi Beach in Australia in 2000, it attracted the fifth largest television audience of all the sports at the Games. The "dance team," which performs in between sets, matches and at most timeouts, is a common sight on the international beach volleyball tour but rare at traditional Olympic events.

On the first day of the Athens preliminary-round matches, the dancers revved up the boisterous, beer-drinking crowd of several thousand who clapped, cheered and sang along to "Highway to Hell" between points. A disc-jockey blasted rock-and-roll and 1950s beach music in between each point and announcers egged on the crowd in Greek and English.

Noting that beach volleyball fans would never hear requests for "quiet please" at a match, the announcers urged fans to stand and get rowdy in support of the players.

"Come on everybody, clap your hands," yelled the announcer during a men's match between Canada and Switzerland. "Stomp, stomp, clap, clap."

Starless day

Someone was missing from U.S. gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj's cheering section.

Former "Baywatch'' star Pamela Anderson wasn't at Sunday's preliminaries, and Bhardwaj wasn't sure if the actress would make Tuesday night's team finals.

The actress gave Bhardwaj $20,000 after learning she was selling raffle tickets to help pay for training. The donation raised Bhardwaj's profile significantly and Anderson later brought a large group of fans to the Olympic trials in Anaheim, Calif.

"I'm not disappointed,'' Bhardwaj said. "I know security is an issue for her all the time.''

No comeback for Cathy

Australian runner Cathy Freeman, who won the 400-meter gold in Sydney, insists she has no regrets after retiring last year and can't envision a comeback.

"I can't see any change of heart,'' she said. "It was a big, big decision for me to walk away from the track. It wasn't even a decision -- I just followed my heart. I can't see myself making any sort of comeback whatsoever.''

Freeman is involved in television commentary, writing newspaper columns, promoting sponsors and doing charity work but remains undecided on a permanent career.

"I'm looking at everything at the moment, and that's completely overwhelming. I haven't exactly decided where my burning ambition is going to take me right now,'' she said.

Afghans rejoice

Basharmal Sultani was beaten in his first-round boxing match. But in the eyes of the crowd, the Afghan welterweight was a big winner.

Sultani, the only boxer in Afghanistan's four-member delegation in Athens, was supported by dozens of frenzied, screaming fans, most waving an Afghan flag or wearing white T-shirts with the flag on the chest.

They packed one corner of Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall. Each time Sultani landed a punch or charged at Egypt's Mohamed Hikal, they erupted in cheers or chants of "Sultani! Sultani!''

Although Hikal won 40-12 in one of the day's most one-sided fights, Sultani got another ovation when he left the ring.

Too tired

Gisela Morales is a swimmer who blames her failure in the Olympics on the ground, not the pool. She said she enjoyed marching in the opening ceremony but that it left her too weary to compete.

"That parade killed me,'' the Guatemalan said after being eliminated in the 200 backstroke. "I stood there for nearly nine hours and went to bed after 2 a.m. Everything was really nice, but when the time came for competition I was exhausted.''

Information from Reuters and The Associated Press was included in this report.

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