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Make blocks, not war

Russia’s Natalia Uryadova walks away as Georgia’s Cristine Santanna, center, and Andrezza Chagas hug during their upset beach volleyball win Wednesday. The teams representing the warring countries had a friendly start but a frosty ending.

Associated Press

Russia’s Natalia Uryadova walks away as Georgia’s Cristine Santanna, center, and Andrezza Chagas hug during their upset beach volleyball win Wednesday. The teams representing the warring countries had a friendly start but a frosty ending.


There are bombshells on the sand. Above, there are fierce spikes. There are attack strategies and defensive tactics. A young woman fires a projectile at her enemy's skull to protect her territory. Also, there are cheerleaders and thundersticks and speakers blaring the sounds of KC and the Sunshine Band. There is a brightly colored volleyball bouncing in the air like a sing-along ball. Ah, beach volleyball. All wars should be fought like this.

More than 3,500 miles from the tanks rolling into the city of Gori, Georgia, the athletes representing Russia and Georgia met on the field of play. Here, at least, armed with a good serve and wearing battle fatigues that looked a lot like bikinis, the Georgians repelled the Russian offensive.

Sitting in the stands on a sticky Wednesday morning, it was difficult to decide what was sillier, the concept of yet another war or the idea of four women playing beach volleyball having anything to do with it. Let's face it: If beach volleyball could soothe political tensions, then Annette Funicello would have been Henry Kissinger.

And yet, here they were, playing the Beach Blanket Bingo of Olympic sports in the hope that, to someone, it might make a difference.

"It was the most important match of my life," said Georgia's Andrezza Chagas, 31. "Before the match, we talked to people in Georgia, and they said they wanted to be fully represented to show that the people of Georgia are warriors."

Strong words. Brave words.

Of course, it might have helped if they weren't said in Portuguese.

You see, Chagas and her partner, Cristine Santanna, 29, were born and raised in Brazil. They have been to Georgia exactly twice. Most of the cheers that came for them were not from the Georgia athletic delegation, although it was present, but from the boisterous young men in the stands wearing Brazilian colors and brightly colored green wigs that made their heads look like cabbage.

That, too, seems to add to the silliness of everything involved here. What's that you say? That you should not make fun of war? Tell me. What is better to do with war than make fun of it?

Santanna, too, said that Georgia was on her mind. "I think (the people) will be very happy," she said, "because for the last two days, they have told me how special it was for them."

And so the two women talked joyously about a come-from-behind victory, and nearby, the Russian women sat and glared. They had seemed happy enough before the game. The women shook hands four times. They embraced three times.

Now, they did not look happy. Finally, as Santanna and Chagas spoke of a homeland they had scarcely seen, Natalia Uryadova, 31, could not contain herself. She said something in Russian, and reporters from her country began to applaud.

"If they were Georgians, they could have been influenced," the translator repeated. "Clearly, they are not."

A few minutes later her partner, Alexandra Shiryaeva, 25, went even further. "They probably don't even know the name of the Georgia president."

Hearing that, Santanna's eyes grew dark. "Of course I do," she said. "Mikhail Saakashvili. I was with his wife two nights ago at the athletes' village. She was a volleyball player when she was younger."

Not finished, Shiryaeva dismissed her opponent thusly: "Russia is big. Georgia is small. To me, it is stupid for Georgia to start a war against us."

And so they went back and forth as if playing one last rally, the artificial Georgians and the sulking Russians.

Earlier, they had seemed to co-exist just fine as Bon Jovi and Aerosmith played and the fans cheered and the flags waved. It was such a fine time that no one noticed when the song that played at the start of the second set was Burning Down the House, a poor choice considering the war.

Looking on, a balding man named Levan Akhvlediani was satisfied. Akhvlediani is the president of the Georgia sports federation. Yes, he said, the victory means something.

Three days earlier, Georgia's 35 athletes had been distraught enough to ask to go home because of the war. Saakashvili asked them to stay. They stayed.

"We stayed to give our people some happiness," Akhvlediani said. "We have to respect the Olympic principles. Other countries have problems, but they stay in the Olympics."

Still, Akhvlediani said, it has been difficult for his athletes. They are worried about their families, and they do not sleep. The medals have not come as expected.

Perhaps Georgia should have recruited better. Santanna and Chagas — who compete as Saka and Rtvelo because if you combine the two words, you get the Georgian pronunciation of Georgia — were seeded only 22nd of 24 teams, yet they came from a set down to beat the Russians.

Akhvlediani said it does not matter that his players are Brazilian (the president signed documents to give them dual passports). Athletes from Georgia compete for other teams. He said the talk is because the Russian women are poor losers. He talked of a Russian male volleyball player who said recently "If they win, they are Brazilian. If they lose, they are Georgian."

It seems odd that beach volleyball can bring out such passions. Still, sports has been that way for a long time. Back in 1956, after the Soviets invaded Hungary, the two played a fierce game of water polo in the Olympics. Even now, that is remembered as the "blood in the water" game.

Perhaps this will not be remembered for that long. But think of it like this: If a beach volleyball game can provide a moment's comfort to either side of a war, isn't it a good thing?

Consider the words of Akhvlediani: "It's better to make war, to make a battle, to make a fight on the sporting fields, not outside of the sporting fields," he said. "It is very important. I send this message to everyone who is involved with this crazy war."

Give the man a point.

On an afternoon of silliness, he made the most sense of anyone.

TV schedule


.5 a.m.-5 p.m. MSNBC

.8-10 a.m. Tele.

.10 a.m.-1 p.m. Ch. 8

.5-8 p.m. CNBC

.6-8 p.m. Oxygen

.8 p.m.-1 a.m. Ch. 8

Detailed schedule, 8C

Phelps watch

Michael Phelps is going for a record-breaking eight gold medals in one Games. He needs three more.

next race

200 individual medley.
Watch it at 10:48 tonight, Ch. 8.

Make blocks, not war 08/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2008 6:53am]
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