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Wednesday, September 20, 2000

God bless Bondi Beach

Of course judging by the sights and sounds of this place He already has


  SYDNEY -- Let's get this straight, right from the get-go.

 Have you ever covered baton twirling? I have.

 I have covered the Burlington synchronized skating team. Try writing a lead about the colour of someone's sequins.

 I have written about the theft of a portable toilet. I once did a man-on-the-street interview asking people whether they thought it was okay that test-tube babies were being hatched in outer space.

 I deserve this assignment. And that's the beauty of it. We all, at some time in our lives, deserve Bondi Beach.

 That is why we watch, and will watch, Canadians John Child and Mark Heese as well as Jody Holden and Conrad Leinemann when they take to the cream-coloured sand at Bondi Beach tomorrow night in their second-round Olympic beach volleyball games. We all deserve it.

 Forget the pool, blow off the track. Nothing beats beach volleyball for human and environmental esthetics.

 "This place," Leinemann was saying the other day, "is the best venue ever for beach volleyball. It's the best venue at the whole Olympics. It's perfect."

 No argument here. Outside the stands, some of the most beautiful people on the planet frolic in the surf. The stadium itself looks like it should have licence plates from another galaxy: Four storeys of stands, capable of accommodating 10,000 people, have been plopped onto the sand. The crowd is loud and enthusiastic, regardless of the duos toiling in the sand.

 Through the upper turnstiles, you can see the sand and water, white-capped near the shore, and then at times pale blue, then aqua then navy.

 Many of the locals hate the place. A temporary stadium in the middle of a beach has transformed the strip into a honeycomb of security gates, but to the world, peering in on prime time, Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye) is a sort of sports Nirvana.

 Outside the fenced-in practice area, beachgoers can watch the men's and women's teams practise ... for free. That's just how Tony Fowlow, a 23-year-old Brampton vacationer, was spending part of his day yesterday.

 "I was watching the U.S. women's team practise," Fowlow said. "They were great and they were in such great shape."

 Ah yes, the shape. It is, naturally, all about bodies, is Bondi beach. Fit athletes, diving for balls in the sand, their lithe, tanned bodies glistening with sweat. And you should see the women.

 Kidding, but not about the sex part. It is part of the package, and the issue of mandated skimpy suits for the women -- no such requirement, of course, for the men -- has passed into the realm of the non-issue.

 I do not defend the institutionalized sexism of beach volleyball. That said, it's not like the Olympics have always been without a prurient element. Women's water polo is an Olympic event in part because the fledgling Australian team petitioned the International Olympic Committee while wearing bathing suits. The women wore the suits, by the way, not the IOC, although they say that in his time, Juan Antonio Samaranch had quite a set of gams. The Winter Games are no better. The costumes for Olympic figure skating answer the age-old question: If someone opened a bordello at the North Pole, what would the women wear?

 But if you can get by the bodies, or even if you can't, you see all the components of a breakaway sport. Beach volleyball is a vibe. No one gets hurt, the music is non-stop and masterfully blended into the show. Every ham-fisted NHL and NBA game programmer should be forced to attend the Bondi volleyball experience. The games are short, usually lasting less than half an hour, although Leinemann and Holden's terrific comeback win against an American team took 60 minutes and there was nary a complaint from the house.

 And the game is exciting, particularly on defence where sprawling saves give beach volleyball its spontaneity and athleticism. Heese, for example, might be the best defensive player at the tournament.

 But mostly beach volleyball is innocent, fluffy fun. You dig, Moon-Doggie?

 And before turning up a nostril, answer me this: Who says the Olympics have to be about pre-pubescent Eastern European pixies on the balance beam? Did Moses forget the tablet that said the only real athletics involve people sprinting 100 metres?

 If anyone represents the spirit of beach volleyball, it is David Callan, one of two Aussies prowling the sidelines of the game, microphone in hand, delivering point by point commentary, interviews and assorted nonsense like double-direction waves.

 Ask him about his job and he will spread his arms wide. "I am," he said, "a raconteur."

 A raconteur who understands his audience. "I know what people are thinking as they are watching this on television." he said. "They're thinking, 'God, I wish I was at Bondi.' "