Five-ring Circus

The Science of DJing an Olympic Beach Volleyball Match

Cheerleaders perform during the women’s and men’s beach volleyball preliminaries in Beijing

Attending beach volleyball matches in Beijing raises a few inevitable questions: How is it possible for the wave to circle an arena five full times? Where do all those perky, underdressed Chinese cheerleaders come from? Did I really just hear“Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” at the Olympic Games?

To solve these mysteries, I turned to a man named “Geeter.” If you’ve watched any of NBC’s beach volleyball coverage, you’ve probably heard Geeter, who in civilian life goes by the less dude-tacular name of Chris McGee, shouting in the background. During matches featuring American teams, Geeter serves as the emcee—a role he often plays on the U.S. professional tour—introducing the players before the games begin and pumping up the crowd once play is underway.

Geeter isn’t a typical Olympic announcer. For one thing, he is unabashedly partisan: Although he tries to appeal to fans of both teams, he’s close friends with most of the Americans in the tournament. (He was one of the first people Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh hugged after their semifinal victory Tuesday.)Although I’ve yet to hit rhythmic gymnastics, it’s also safe to say that he’s the only announcer in Beijing who does the worm as part of his official duties. He has done the worm less frequently than usual in Beijing, however, prompting some friends to ask whether he is being “subdued.”

“It’s the Olympics,” Geeter explains. “I’m not going to run on the court every five seconds, you know what I mean?”

In comparison with, say, the public-address person at the Bird’s Nest, Geeter is not anywhere close to subdued. My best approximation of the contrast between their announcing styles:

Bird’s Nest guy (speaking in clipped tone): In Lane 4, a semifinalist in the 2007 World Championships, Nevin Yanit of Turkey. Geeter: And now. (Dramatic pause.) Please welcome. (Longer dramatic pause.) The first-time O-o-o-lympian R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-en-a-a-t-a-a-a.

At the Olympics, Geeter has been forced to adapt to a non-Manhattan Beach audience. The Chinese have become something of a beach volleyball powerhouse in the past few years, particularly in the women’s game, where two of the top four teams in the world are Chinese. But the sport was birthed in California, and every Olympic gold medal has been won by a team hailing from Australia, Brazil, or Southern California. Beijing, on the other hand, doesn’t have a beach and didn’t have a stop on the sport’s international tour until 2004.

Of course, novice fans aren’t unique to Beijing or to beach volleyball: It’s not like there was a huge handball fan base in Atlanta. In fact, during every Olympics since beach volleyball’s debut at the 1996 Games, there have been wide-eyed news stories (like this one, I suppose) about fans’ reactions to this strange new sport. The game’s perpetual newness makes sense, though. As opposed to every other Olympic sport, beach volleyball imposes its peculiar style and culture—the California slang, the skimpy uniforms—on the Games rather than succumbing to the Games’ own austere, self-important ethos.

In Beijing, Geeter has proved willing to meet the Olympic spirit halfway. When a point ends, he speaks for only half as long as usual—maybe five seconds instead of 10—to give his Chinese counterpart the chance to rile up the crowd as well. (The two announcers tend to say roughly the same thing, although Geeter gets a little more animated.)In this brief window, Geeter says something, anything to get the crowd cheering. (“This is a tough ticket to get! Let me hear you enjoy yourselves!”) In a nod to the audience’s unfamiliarity with typical beach volleyball parlance, he’s cut down on AVP lingo—you don’t hear much talk of a “UC state” or a “Kong.” Rather, he ingratiates himself by dropping in the omnipresent Chinese cheer jia you—literally, “more fuel”—several times a match.

And then there’s the music, which fills any time that’s left over. The song selection at Chaoyang Park suggests that the DJs have ransacked a teenager’s Case Logic from 1998. Reel Big Fish, Blink-182, and Smashmouth are in heavy rotation, along with “Uptown Girl” and (strangely) John Philip Sousa marches. (Most out-of-place song: “Sweet Home Alabama.”)

The man who picks the music is an Austrian named Michael Staribacher, who goes by DJ Stari. Compared with Geeter, DJ Stari is an Olympic veteran—he worked the Athens Games after his efforts at a tournament in Klagenfurt were deemed a huge success. (You can check out the Klagenfurt playlist here.) Staribacher acknowledges that other DJs might look down on his Olympics gig as insufficiently “artistic,” and he confesses he isn’t playing his personal favorite tunes. Back home in Vienna, he works gigs like MTV’s Spring Jam, and his own tastes run toward punk and hip-hop. (Check out “DJ Stari’s persönliche Top 10.”) But as DJ Stari tells it, there’s science behind his selections.

First, cast aside any concerns about whether a song is hopelessly dated. (Case in point: “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) All that matters is that the tune has a beat that can attract the crowd’s attention in fewer than six seconds. Next, choose a few songs that reflect what’s happening on the court. An ace is followed by “U Can’t Touch This”; a block gets a remix of the German rap “Mein Block.” Star players also get their own songs: Big plays by Kerri Walsh are occasionally followed by a clip from the power ballad “Carrie.” (Tom Bläumauer, an Austrian who serves as the event’s other emcee, has compiled a list of 1,100 or so beach volleyball-appropriate songs.) Finally, DJ Stari relies heavily on songs filled with nonsense language that can be picked up just as easily by Brazilians or Beijingers. Hence the popularity of the “hi de ho” sequence of “Minnie the Moocher” or the “yeah-eah-eahs” of “Shout.”

During longer timeouts, DJ Stari is at the mercy of the Beach Babes. The cheerleading troupe, the result of an unlikely collaboration between China and the Canary Islands, plays whatever tunes they’ve selected for their routines, irrespective of the Stari seal of approval. The cheerleaders are typically joined by inflatable Fuwa, who seem to specialize in four different moves: shimmying, pelvic thrusting, walking around aimlessly, and falling over helplessly. For all the attention they’ve received, the reaction the cheerleaders get isn’t all that different from your typical NBA dance team: a combination of leering, bemusement, and apathy. In fact, they appear to be at their most effective in encouraging propagation of the wave—or, as venues in Beijing insist on calling it, the “Mexican wave”—fostering levels of participation that would make Krazy George proud. 

The cheerleaders, the Fuwa,the ‘90s music, and Geeter’s exhortations combine to create an environment that seems best-suited for a hyperactive 12-year-old. Still, it seems to work, though the crowd is admittedly far more responsive at the 9 p.m. matches than at the 9 a.m. contests that are closing out the tournament. In my brief experience, the beach volleyball venue is one of the few settings where the crowd gets loud even when a Chinese team isn’t competing. Maybe the fans really love Blink-182. Or maybe it’s because the beer costs just 75 cents.