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FIRST TIME SPORT // BEACH VOLLEYBALL

Dates: July 23-28.

Venue: Atlanta Beach in Clayton County.

TV sessions:

July 27 _ noon-5:30 p.m.

July 28 _ noon-6 p.m.

Daily schedule:

July 23-25 _ Men's and women's preliminaries

July 26 _ Men's final eight, women's quarterfinals/semifinals

July 27 _ Men's quarterfinals/semifinals, women's bronze and gold medal matches

July 28 _ Men's bronze and gold medal matches

About the sport: Beach volleyball has two players to a team, and the court dimensions are the same as the indoor game (29 feet 6 inches by 59 feet).

Olympic scoring: Preliminaries are one game to 15, win by 2, cap at 17. The gold medal match is the best of three to 12 points. In the event the match goes to game three, it will be rally scoring, win by 2 and no cap.

World's best: Brazil's Jacqui Silva and Sandra Pires have won 22 straight international women's events. Countrymen Ze Marco Melo and Emanuel Rego have been the best men's international team.

U.S. best: For the men, Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes have dominated the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour. The women's best has been Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno, but after qualifying last year they struggled and split up. But since they qualified as a team, they must play together at the Olympics.

Analysis: Kiraly and Steffes are overwhelming favorites to win the gold. Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh came out of the losers' bracket to also qualify and should contend for a silver or bronze. Neither team has played many international matches, so it will be interesting how Melo and Rego stack up against the top Americans.

Among the women, top-ranked Silva and Pires are expected to make the finals. If McPeak and Reno regain old form, they will be there to meet them. Surprisingly, Karolyn Kirby and Liz Masakayan, who played with new partners, were not a factor at the Olympic Trials as Gail Castro and Deb Richardson and Barbra Fontana Harris and Linda Hanley qualified. Long overshadowed, Hanley/Fontana Harris may be the only chance to prevent a Brazilian sweep of the medals.

Most controversial: McPeak is referred to by some tour members as "The Body Nazi," referring to her 1,500 daily stomach crunches and her visit to a plastic surgeon for breast enhancement. Other players argue that undermines their status as serious athletes.

Personality plus: Dodd and Whitmarsh love to play to the crowd, and their style should put a good share of the fans behind them. Reno's psychedelic look _ tie-dyed bandana, beads _ makes her a crowd favorite.

Weather...or not: The summers can be brutal in Atlanta, but consider this: At a recent tour stop at the site of the Olympics, Johnson and partner Jose Loiola had to default in the finals against Kiraly and Steffes because of heat exhaustion.

Sold out: Beach volleyball, which NBC expects to be a ratings bonanza, was one of the first Olympic events to sell out.

_ JOHN COTEY

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