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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Change Partners And Play Beach Volleyball Tests Loyalties As Olympics Debut Draws Near

Bob Ford Philadelphia Inquirer

For those who missed the last few episodes of “Beach Volleyball, Olympic Invader,” here’s a recap:

Randy and Beef had been together all year, but that was before Adam stole Randy away. And Dain and Canyon were really getting along, but then Canyon had that toe thing, so Dain called Beef, who was on the rebound, and Canyon ended up with Lee.

The women? Don’t ask. Nancy and Holly have to be together, but they broke up for a while anyway. Karolyn was with Nancy during the break-up, and that turned out to be a big mistake for her. But what did she expect?

What indeed? Please stay tuned, for there will certainly be more. If this is Baltimore, where trucked-in sand forms the earth and beer advertisements flutter against the sky, then these must be the U.S. Olympic trials for beach volleyball, a sport whose moral fiber is spandex.

Beneath the skimpy swimsuits or flimsy tank tops of the competitors, no doubt, every heart beats true for the red, white and blue. But the first-time inclusion of this California original into the generally staid Olympic Games will bring with it a slightly different attitude.

“It’s kind of a clash in ideology,” said Karch Kiraly (pronounced Keer-RYE), 35, the world’s top-ranked beach volleyball player, who along with partner Kent Steffes grabbed the final spot on the U.S. team. “This is a game known for its individualism and flashy play. The Olympics are known for patriotism and a lot of protocol. Over the years, there’s been very little protocol involved with beach volleyball.”

The two-on-two game was invented on the beaches near Los Angeles in the 1920s, and became a cult passion long before modest tournament prize money was first offered in 1974. The legends of the game were often hard-partying beach bums who trained by the light of the jukebox.

In the last two decades, the sport has attracted sponsorships and television contracts and has spawned separate tours for men and women. The men’s Miller Lite Professional Volleyball Tour offers more than $4 million in prize money this year. The women’s Evian tour awards about $1.5 million. Beach volleyball was approved in 1993 for the Olympic program.

“It’s changed, and we’re all a little more serious,” said 39-year-old Sinjin Smith, who has already qualified for the Olympics - some say he sneaked in - with partner Carl Henkel.

With money and fame come commercialism and politics. It’s no secret that television executives and product manufacturers like the sport as much for its healthy, slightly titillating, hard-body image as for the competition. The players, naturally, balk at the inference.

“I don’t think we’re trying to sell sex,” said Olympic team member Holly McPeak, who nonetheless had a breast augmentation procedure recently and is cattily referred to by opponents on tour as “Holly Twin Peaks.”

“If people come out to see girls in bikinis or guys in shorts, that’s fine,” Smith said. “I’m not going to deny it’s a sexier sport than … bowling or golf or whatever. But people quickly realize there’s a great sport that comes along with this.”

The politics of the game aren’t as sunny or wholesome. The Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP), the men’s union, is at war with the international governing body of the sport (FIVB). The fight is about money, but it spilled over into the Olympic qualification process, with a balky compromise being reached last year.

The FIVB ruled that for both men and women, one of the three U.S. Olympic spots would be reserved for the top-ranked American teams on the international tour.

To play on the international tour, American players had to forgo their own domestic tour for a full year. And while all the best players opted to stay in the United States, diving and spiking for big bucks, Smith and Henkel went overseas to lock up the FIVB-designated spot.

“I took advantage of an opportunity that was open to everyone,” Smith said. “Everyone knew what the rules were.”

On the women’s side, where the players’ association (WPVA) worked successfully with the international body, the Olympic controversy is more personal.

Nancy Reno and McPeak were the best team on both the FIVB tour and the women’s Evian tour. The homespun Reno, a nature girl who wears tie-dyed bandanas and works for environmental causes in her spare time, is the tall blocker. The glamorous, semi-natural McPeak, 5-foot-6 and lightning quick, is the setter.

They are volleyball’s odd couple - even endorsing different brands of bathing suits - and never more odd than this season. Reno dumped McPeak midway through the Evian tour to play with Karolyn Kirby, even though the Reno-McPeak tandem received the automatic bid and is a cast-in-stone Olympic team.

Reno and McPeak eventually reunited late last month, leaving Kirby to scramble for a trials partner. She chose rookie Lisa Arce, but they were knocked out in the preliminary rounds last week despite holding the top seed.

The men change partners frequently as well. Adam Johnson, ranked behind only Kiraly and Steffes, teams on the AVP tour with a Brazilian player. When he asked Randy Stoklos, another aging legend, to join him for the Olympic trials, Stoklos dropped partner Bill “Beef” Boullianne like a jellyfish.

Boullianne then hooked up with Dain Blanton, who had discarded his partner, Canyon Ceman, when Ceman dislocated one of his toes so badly that the bone was sticking through the skin. Like, “Later, dude.” Ceman teamed with Lee LeGrande at the trials, but was quickly eliminated.

That’s beach volleyball, where loyalty isn’t a factor.

“Being in the Olympics means a lot to the whole sport,” said Kiraly, who like Smith, his one-time beach partner, was an all-American in the indoor game at UCLA. “It’s going to be interesting. For instance, we’ve never had anthems for the participants. It’ll be a sight to have all these beach volleyball players standing there during anthems. They aren’t used to playing for their countries.”