Vahe Gregorian

Beach volleyball is the best of what Rio Olympics has sought to be

Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk, known to fans simply as “Agatha,” celebrates with the crowd after she and her partner beat Team USA on a raucous early Wednesday morning at Copacabana Beach in Rio.
Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk, known to fans simply as “Agatha,” celebrates with the crowd after she and her partner beat Team USA on a raucous early Wednesday morning at Copacabana Beach in Rio. AP

Under a virtually full moon early Wednesday morning, the mist drifted in off the Atlantic Ocean as whitecaps crashed on Copacabana Beach.

The setting was a glorious natural backdrop for the pulsating man-made scene within the beach volleyball venue.

All of which made for the essence of the promise of the 2016 Rio Olympics, a spirit that crackled both within the arena and without along the most famous beach in the world.

Before the women’s semifinal between the U.S. team of Kerri Walsh Jennings (a three-time Olympic champion) and partner April Ross and the Brazilian pair known best simply as Agatha and Barbara, there was a tangible buzz of anticipation among fans about to enter.

It was the sort of vibe you get outside a World Series game or the Super Bowl or at the NCAA Tournament men’s Final Four, and it hinted at the dynamics starting to percolate within.

Brazilians absolutely roared out their national anthem, and the capacity crowd of 12,000 fans between points danced so vigorously to everything from “Volare” to “La Bamba” to “Summer Nights” and the relentless “Monster Block!” song that you could feel the stands swaying.

The crowd boomed for Agatha and Barbara, and it booed when the Americans served. But if there controversy in this, Ross put it to rest by saying that all they heard was a “highly energized crowd” that they loved playing in front of.

After Agatha and Barbara had made a raucous crowd entirely delirious by beating Walsh Jennings and Ross in straight sets, Agatha delivered a more direct version of what people like to call an “Olympic moment.”

As she approached a few U.S. reporters waiting to speak with her after she regaled the Brazilian media, she still radiated joy over what she’d just felt and accomplished.

When she leaned on a gate toward us all and put her hand on my arm to make her points, somehow, it felt Brazil itself was speaking.

“Ah, it was amazing. Amazing!” she said, adding that the atmosphere reflected what it is to be from here. “Brazil is happiness, felicidad, musica. Brazil is this.”

From a purely U.S. stance, it was a shame Walsh Jennings and Ross were relegated to playing for the bronze medal, which they won Wednesday night.

But the more global and compassionate upside is that Brazil had a much more urgent need for the victory that assured gold or silver in one of their marquee events — the final of which was to take place in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

For one thing, instances of crime and issues from logistics to sparse attendance at many events have loomed over the Games.

For another, as of late afternoon Wednesday the medal count showed Team USA with 86 overall medals and 28 golds; the host nation had managed 11 total, including three golds.

With the 12th medal guaranteed early Thursday, Brazil is assured of finishing with more than the record-low for the host nation of a summer Games, nine for Mexico in 1968.

But it’s almost certain to finish with among the fewest ever for a host, and it’s not the numbers that have hurt most.

On a competitively agonizing Tuesday, the two-time defending Olympic champion women’s indoor volleyball team was ousted by China in a quarterfinal and the promising women’s soccer team lost in the semifinal to dash its hopes of gold.

National pride got an infusion of energy Wednesday afternoon when the men’s soccer team crushed Honduras 6-0 in the semifinal to advance to the final on Saturday, when it hopes to atone for losing in the final at the 2012 London Games and sadly failing to reach the final at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

It would make the Games for Brazil if the men were to win Saturday in the national obsession.

But the possibility of earning two women’s beach volleyball medals late Wednesday (another Brazilian pair lost to Walsh Jennings and Ross in the bronze-medal match) and early Thursday also no doubt was a tonic.

They’ve been playing beach volleyball along this majestic 2  1/2 -mile beach since the 1930s, after all, and the signs of that legacy are everywhere along a walk that floods the circuits with activity:

All at once, runners and bikers and skateboarders bustle along a path parallel to café after café and swarming vendors who roam with anything from colorful cocktails to toy puppets to Olympic trinkets.

It’s dog-walkers and tourists sipping straws from coconuts and elderly women walking slowly with their arms locked, and it’s a periodic military and police presence and a lot of people lining up to pose by Olympic rings and elaborate sand-art dedicated to the Games.

But the deluge of images has a connective common denominator.

About everywhere the eye can see, the sand between the walkway and the beach is furnished with soccer goals and volleyball nets that might be used at all hours of the night.

As he tried to put it in words inside the stadium during the semifinal match, 33-year-old Brazilian engineer Lucian Guelfi considered how he’d played on this beach and what it meant to have the world here now.

He smiled and seemed to meld the words “gigantic” and “fantastic,” then he said, “It’s in our blood.”

That explains something about what beach volleyball has meant to the Rio Olympics: part athletics showcase, part party and entirely a place to celebrate a highlight of the Games for Rio.

Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross have won the beach volleyball bronze medal, coming back after losing the first set to beat the host Brazilians at Copacabana.

The win comes less than 24 hours after Walsh Jennings lost on the Olympic beach for the first time in 27 matches over four Summer Games.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time gold medalist, delivered a pair of blocks for the final two points on Wednesday night to win 17-21, 21-17, 15-9.

Brazil’s loss still leaves the home country with two beach volleyball medals at the games.

Agatha and Barbara were scheduled to play Germany in the women’s championship later Wednesday night. Alison and Bruno were in the men’s gold medal match on Thursday.

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