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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

ODDS AND EVENS

Beach volley provides good fun for everyone


BEIJING — I think I've discovered a very important fact: The public-address announcer at the Olympic women's beach volleyball matches considers himself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Ed Odeven

There's a contagious, upbeat tone to his voice, and he seemed unaware of the concept of work-related stress.

I was certainly in a good mood at 10:10 a.m. on Tuesday, thinking for a moment that this column assignment had much greater appeal to me than many of the odd jobs I did in the past (raking leaves, shoveling snow, bagging groceries, flipping burgers, reporting on soap box derbies, etc.).

After a timeout at the Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground on Tuesday morning, for example, this fellow took great pleasure in saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a big hand to the Beach Girls."

The cheerful spectators followed his instructions, hollering, whistling, smiling, clapping and, yes, snapping photograph after photograph of the beautiful bikini-clad cheerleaders.

And then they returned to watching the all-Chinese semifinal, featuring Wang Jie and Tian Jia vs. Xue Chen and Zhang Xi.

(In the earlier semifinal, reigning Olympic champions Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor of the United States defeated Brazil's Renata Ribeiro and Talita Rocha in straight sets to advance to Thursday's final).

"We'll just have to pretend the crowd is cheering for us," May-Treanor said, giving her perspective on facing a Chinese duo for the gold in front of their home crowd.

Beach volleyball made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games and has enjoyed widespread popularity since then.

It's easy to understand why. Tuesday's atmosphere resembled a summer beach party — and it's always like that.

Lou Bega's groovy "Mambo No. 5" blared out of the speakers during one timeout as 12 Beach Girls (China's secret weapon for better international relations, a comedian might say one day soon) performed a spirited, sexy dance on the sand. At the same time Wang and Tian and Xue and Zhang collected their thoughts before the next serve.

During another break in the action, the P.A. man asked the crowd to do the wave. It willingly obliged, doing so with the same zeal as Manchester United or AC Milan fans during a Champions League final.

In the first set, the score was tied at 15-15, 17-17 and then 19-19. Nobody complained.

News photo
Full stretch: China's Xue Chen lunges for the ball during women's beach volleyball semifinal action in Beijing on Tuesday. AP PHOTO

After one hard-earned point, Miami bass (rap) group Tag Team's early 1990s hit "Whoomp! (There It Is)" breaks the split-second of silence. And then it was time for another jump serve. Service speeds ranged from the 50-kph range to a top speed of 77 kph on this picture-postcard morning.

Seconds later, the first set was knotted at 21-21 and then 22-22. Xue and Zhang led 1-0 after the 26-minute first set, which ended 24-22 in their favor.

Tian and Wang rallied back in the spirited second set, taking it 29-27 after six set points. The 35-minuted set produced a plethora of stellar spikes, well-timed block attempts, diving digs in the sand (24.4 C compared to the air's 25.5 C) and solid passing between both teams.

During another break in the action Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" gave the cheerleaders an excuse to shake their well-toned bodies and the audience a reason to focus its undivided attention on their every move.

The third set was less of a challenge for the Tian-Wang tandem. The twosome jumped out to a 10-7 lead and tacked on four of the next five points to earn match point.

The Xue-Zhang partnership lost its chance of a berth in the final by seeing its last attack attempt sail wide right in a 15-8 loss. Tian fell to the sand to celebrate the victory, lying on the playing surface for a moment to soak in this riveting fact: Chinese had guaranteed their first-ever Olympic medal in the sport.

"I would use the word magic to describe all our matches so far," Tian said after Wang gave her a big hug. "We have accomplished our goal the moment we entered the quarterfinals."

Tian and Wang secured the victory because of their superior attack, producing 41 successful attacks out of 67 attempts. Their opponents were 34-for-72.

"The moment we won the game, our minds turned blank," said Wang. "We were thinking about the difficulties we have experienced throughout the match and the entire Olympics, and we were moved by it."

There were no real losers after Tuesday's second semifinal. The 11,000-plus fans departed the arena with a large collection of photographs of cheerleaders and attractive volleyball players, who also call the bikini their work uniform, and the memory of a well-played event. The 74-minute match also provided a nice change of pace from watching traditional Olympic sports — track and field, weightlifting, wrestling and swimming, for instance — and a chance to root for a winner in a more relaxed manner.

Now Tian and Wang shift their focus to Thursday's marquee match against the Americans.

"We will play the game point by point, and with the Chinese people's support, we will produce magic," Tian said.

The P.A. announcer will be happy to tell you all about it.



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