Five-ring Circus

Beach Bums

Why are beach-volleyball players always patting each other on the butt?

U.S. beach volleyball players Kerri Walsh (left) and Misty May-Treanor

It will be apparent to all who have given the matter superficial consideration—the only kind of consideration the matter merits—that beach volleyball is unworthy of the Olympics. While it is clearly a healthful pastime, a fun athletic-ish endeavor, and a fine way for four friends to work off a case of canned beer, it is just as clearly not an actual sport.

The U.S. women’s team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, foisted as sex symbols upon a complacent republic, compete in two-pieces with translucent panels—hardly sportsladylike. Nor do the sartorial choices of the U.S. volleyboys inspire confidence in the seriousness of their endeavor. A nighttime match saw Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser wearing sunglasses with the lenses popped out, sporting the hideous frames for the sake of the sponsors. “It’s a different kind of look,” one NBC commentator commentated. His partner agreed, “It’s a different kind of look, that’s for sure.”

Conspicuously, Olympic beach volleyball involves cheerleaders. At first blush, this might seem to argue in favor of its worthiness, but you must understand that these are nonpartisan cheerleaders. To quote, the young ladies simply “use a variety of dances to make sure the fans stay rowdy.” Beach volleyball seems to be alone in Beijing in employing such bikini-clad rabble-rousers. Please correct me if I’m wrong and, in fact, the gals will be prancing over to the track for the triple jump or out to the shooting range for the skeet final.

Though there should be no need to demonstrate the frivolity of the “sport” any further, its real proof is in the way that beach-volleyball players touch each other, almost without exception, after every point. In general, a point won, no matter how mundane, necessitates either a double high-five accompanied by a celebratory hoot or a congratulatory ass slap of the type that George W. Bush demurred from planting on May-Treanor. A point lost might call for a consoling ass slap and a murmur of encouragement, perhaps after pulling one’s partner up out of the sand. You’d think that these people, being Olympic athletes, might have learned how to stand up all by themselves, but that’s teamwork in action.

Every sport and quasi-sport encourages its own superstitious tics, preening behavior, and weird bits of incidental ceremony. Some of us USDA-approved couch potatoes, most familiar with the oddities of the dugout and the free-throw line, have been struck by the little rituals of the less-familiar Olympic sports, even coming to see them as windows into the soul of each event. Thus do the beach-volleyball players look like children in a sandbox aping the ways of indoor volleyball players, who huddle and cuddle at every opportunity. The difference is that the gestures of Walsh, Rogers, and their ilk seem to be geared toward trying to convince themselves that they are, in fact, at the Olympics, as opposed to somebody’s friend’s clambake.

If, for some strange reason, you’re inclined to be more charitable about the issue and dignify all the slaps and smacks, you might say that they are of a piece with the focused neurosis of the swimmers’ pre-race goggle-fiddling or the highly formalized movements of the archers. Personality, as the man once said, is an unbroken series of successful gestures, and the average Olympic athlete has a personality more like a presidential candidate’s or an A-list movie star’s than yours or mine. All of them are talented freaks distinguished by unnatural ambition, which is maybe why my favorite Olympic gesture is a nongesture—the masks of perfect blankness worn by the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. They reflect the gymnasts’ half-cheerful, half-wary disengagement from reality—the inwardness of people who never stopped playing on mats. They reflect the eerie determination of a sentence Shawn Johnson breathed to a reporter a few nights back: “Our team can do the impossible.”