Five-ring Circus

Grain of Truth

Why are Olympic beach volleyballers playing on Belgian sand?

Check out those fine grains!
Check out those fine grains!

When I watch Olympic beach volleyball, I can’t stop staring at the silica implants. Not silicone implants, mind you. I’m not ogling fake boobs. I’m ogling fake sand.

During a recent telecast, NBC commentator Chris Marlowe sized up the seductive playing surface. “Beautiful white sand,” he drooled, “pure as can be.” But this sand isn’t pure at all. The Olympics are in a country with some of the world’s most gorgeous beaches, yet somehow beach volleyball is being contested on sand that is a) not from Greece and b) not even from a beach.

In the first week of competition, NBC’s disoriented announcers claimed that the inside of the Olympic courts had been filled with Dutch (or possibly Norwegian) sand while Greek sand covered the sidelines. But this rosy picture of a multinational beach—Greece with a light dusting of Holland on top—was far from accurate. On the eve of the tournament, Olympic officials covered every inch of the Olympic Beach Volleyball Centre with 1,700 tons of sand harvested from a mine in Mol, Belgium. As the director of the International Sand Collectors Society told me, sand from Greek beaches tends to be somewhat coarse. For finicky beach volleyballers, scratchy Greek sand just wouldn’t do.

These days, qualifying for a beach volleyball tournament is harder for the sand than for the athletes. An exacting group of Canadian sand judges from a company called Hutcheson Sand and Mixes makes sure that every batch matches the standards set by the International Volleyball Federation. The sand has to be the right size, shape, and consistency; it has to be free from pebbles; it can’t be too dusty or too sticky. The sand has to be flawless. But nature doesn’t make perfect sand—Belgians do.

Sand engineering became an essential part of beach volleyball as the game spread from the California coast to middle America. For 60 years, beach volleyball flourished from Santa Barbara to San Diego. But by the early 1980s, the game’s leading lights decided pro beach volleyball couldn’t survive unless they took the beach on the road. Soon, the Association of Volleyball Professionals was staging annual events in such landlocked locales as Arizona and Colorado.

Where did they get the sand? Then, as now, environmental restrictions made ransacking real beaches problematic. So beach volleyball organizers turned to construction companies. Today, mining outfits from Dessel, Belgium, to Chardon, Ohio, offer lines of designer beach volleyball sand. After it’s dredged from the bottom of a lake or hauled out of a quarry, sand is a rough hodgepodge of silicates and minerals. By sifting the particles into similar-size groups and scrubbing away impurities, master craftsmen can create soft sands that drain well, resist compaction, and avoid crusting. The result is a sort of Platonic ideal of sand, the same high-quality stuff that’s sprinkled into golf bunkers.

But if you ask a beach volleyball guru where to find the world’s best sand, they won’t send you to a lake in Antwerp or a quarry in Ohio. Classicists revere Athens as the cradle of democracy. Volleyball players worship Manhattan Beach, the cradle of beach volleyball. John Kessel, director of beach volleyball for USA Volleyball, swoons when he talks about Manhattan Beach sand, lavishing praise on its depth, suppleness, grain size, permeability, and resistance to clumping.

Sand scientists have launched a Manhattan Beach Project of sorts, scrambling to duplicate the atomic structure of the sport’s original playing surface. To prove the Belgian sand’s bona fides, an Olympic official e-mailed me a quote from U.S. competitor Stein Metzger. “The sand is great,” said Metzger. “[It] reminds me of the sand at Manhattan Beach, birthplace of beach volleyball.”

The quest to create a perfect facsimile of authentic sand speaks to a broader trend in professional beach volleyball: The sport has turned its back on the beach. In the last few Olympics, the game’s holy trinity—sand, sun, and sea—has faded to the background. Where was the ocean when Karch Kiraly won a gold medal in Atlanta? Where was the sun last week when Athens played host to the first nighttime match in Olympic history? And where in the name of Misty May is the authentic sand?

The new, enhanced beach volleyball sands are a lot like AstroTurf. They’re meticulously crafted, easy to maintain, and look great on television. But already in Athens, the Belgian sand, just like plastic grass, has caused some unforeseen ailments (not to mention geographic confusion). During one match, Australia’s Josh Slack was forced to call a medical timeout. “He was doing a lot of flushing,” announced NBC’s Marlowe, “trying to get that piece of sand, that piece of Dutch sand out of his eyeball.”

“That Dutchsand seems to be so fine,” said Kiraly,“it is hard to extract.”