How cold does it have to get before the women can add clothing?" On the coldest day of the Olympic beach volleyball competition-Sept. 25, the day of the women's final-it was a pertinent question from a s.o.c.o.g. official to her supervisor. The answer? 16šC. So while spectators rugged up against the cool southeasterly breeze and a 17š maximum, the four women on center court at Bondi stayed in nothing more than bikinis. But, hey, that's beach volleyball.
The seemingly un-Olympic sidelights of this sport-from booming pop tracks to microphoned emcees driving the team supporters' chants-at times risked wresting attention from the on-court action. But as Australians Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst started to get the better of Brazil's Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede, the focus fixed on the play.
Before the gold-medal match, everything had seemed to be going the Brazilians' way. They'd been world No. 1 (or, as the announcer put it, the "winningest team in history") for three years, while the Aussies-who, after winning bronze at Atlanta, had parted ways and joined forces again only last year-were No. 6. The Brazilians had won 20 of the 44 tournaments they'd entered and beaten the Australians in 14 of their 17 encounters. But all that counted for little on the sands of Bondi, as the 10,000-strong crowd urged Cook and Pottharst on to the greatest game of their lives.
Twice the Australians fought back from behind, from 11-8 in the first set and 10-8 in the second (the target being 12 points). It was their power game that saved them: Pottharst punched out the fastest serve recorded in the women's game's brief Olympic history (85 km/h), and the Brazilians were not at their defensive best. Serving for the medal, Pottharst, 35, delivered a ball the Brazilians couldn't properly set and Behar returned wide. The upset was complete.
The Australians fell to the sand and clung to each other. "I can't believe it," Pottharst mouthed. For the former Australian indoor volleyball team captain (she was in the national side for a decade) and 25-year-old Cook, the win was as important for their emerging sport as it was for them. The Brazilians, too, were evangelistic, saying they hoped their medals would spread the word. "I hope we've put on a good show," Cook said. Indeed they had. But it had nothing to do with bikinis-and everything to do with athletic skill.