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WHERE'S THE BEACH // Beaches, bikinis and baggies

The brothers Flanagan thought they were going to the beach.

They packed their bathing suits, buckets, sand shovels and sunscreen. All they needed was an ocean.

"We're almost there," their dad assured them. "Look a sign. Ten miles to Atlanta Beach."

The boys, ages 2 and 5, were sons of Floridians and had spent many afternoons frolicking in the Atlantic near Grandma's house. So naturally, they were stoked when Dad picked them up early at day care with Olympic beach volleyball tickets in hand.

"When can we go swimming?" asked Jimmy, the eldest.

"Soon," Dad responded as they rolled down the highway. "First, we watch volleyball."

But father Mike began to think he had blundered when a police officer directed him into the parking lot of the Atlanta Speedway. "What are we doing here?" he wondered. "Is auto racing an Olympic event? I hope not, because I hate NASCAR."

A long line of spectators clad in baggies and bikinis walking toward buses dismissed his fears.

"Come on, boys, this won't be so bad," he said. "When I was in high school I used to take the bus to the beach all the time."

They piled in and 20 minutes later the vehicle stopped outside the complex where competition for one of the Olympic's new medal sports had started.

The official beach volleyball venue looks like it was built with the future in mind. When the Games of the XXVI Olympiad are over, it won't take much to turn the place into a first-rate miniature-golf course and Go Kart track.

To get to the stands, fans must walk around a large, manmade lake that looks like it was dug with a backhoe a week ago. They sprinkled some sand along the shoreline to make it more aesthetically pleasing, but a chain-link fence lets people know the beach is there to look at but not touch.

Continue down the path and you pass a tiny water park complete with a giant raining mushroom, pirate ship and cannons that fire streams of water at all who dare to cross their paths.

"Now can we go swimming?" Jimmy asked again.

"Soon," his dad said. "After we watch volleyball."

The Flanagans continued past the beer vendors, who were out in force hawking 16-ounce cans of the Olympic sponsor's Bud and Bud Light. "Coldest beer in town," one yelled. "Drink this and you'll need to put on a sweater."

The pitch works, and several people stop and load up with tall boys. It's comforting to see that despite its Olympic status, beach volleyball hasn't strayed too far from its humble beginnings in southern California when bronzed beach bums battled it out for nothing more than who would buy the brewskies.

They walked on and stopped at the smaller of the two courts where a match between Canada and Australia was in progress. They thought about trying to get a seat at the main event, where athletes from France and Estonia traded shots in a giant sandbox flanked by bleachers, but after much discussion, it was generally agreed that of the four countries, Australia had the best beaches and therefore, the better beach volleyball players.

"We didn't know what to expect," said Cindy Ivins, who along with her husband, Tracy, had just driven 16 hours from New Jersey to see history in the making. "But we're not disappointed. They're playing music, serving beer, which is kind of cool, for the Olympics."

The Ivins had snagged a schedule that showed the lineup for the six days of competition. The men's field contained 24 teams, including several from the United States, Brazil and Indonesia, all countries famous for beach culture.

The lineup also included teams from Norway, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Wait a minute isn't the Czech Republic landlocked, as in hundreds of miles from the sea?

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (or ACOG, which among many here has become a four-letter word) moved beach volleyball from Tybee Island (a community on the Georgia Coast with excellent beaches) to a patch of land in the heart of Clayton County.

They could have played in Florida, which, according to Stephen Leatherman, a coastal geologist with the University of Maryland, has four of the nation's top 10 beaches.

But volleyball fans are a forgiving bunch. If the beer is cold and the music is loud, they'll watch just about anybody smack a ball around in the sand.

The Flanagan boys were happy to just be part of the Olympic dream. They got to take their shirts off and dance in the stands. And when the match was done, Dad kept his promise. "Okay, guys, now you can go swimming," he said.

So they splashed beneath the mushroom and climbed the pirate ship, then fired a cannon until the day was done.

The brothers Flanagan never imagined the Olympics could be so muchfun.