Beach volleyball is expected to be one of the most interesting events at this summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta. Once considered strictly a California sport, it has taken off internationally.
It also has gone indoors.
With 240 tons of sand, a thermostat raised to 80 degrees and eight of the top teams in the country, the sport will come to the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., today in the form of the Evian Indoor Pro Beach Volleyball Championships.
"It's not very different at all [from real beach volleyball] as far as the level of play," former two-time Olympian Karch Kiraly said of the indoor game. "There's no sun to tire you out after one or two games. When there's a strong wind outside, it makes it difficult. In general, you will see a pretty high quality because of the mild conditions."
It's the first of two indoor events for the Association of Volleyball Professionals, and the first beach volleyball tournament leading up to the Olympic trials in June.
"If it was later in the season, you would see the highest quality of beach volleyball in the world," said Kiraly, who made the transition from regular volleyball to beach volleyball in 1989. "But I think this being an Olympic year, the importance on each event is there. This is the biggest year beach volleyball has had."
It follows the most controversial year in the short history of the sport. The uproar began when FIBV, which governs the sport and runs its own international tour, allowed the top American pair of Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel automatically to qualify for the Olympic team, and then allowed its No. 2 U.S. entry to be seeded right into the semifinals of the Olympic trials.
Meanwhile, teams from the U.S.-based AVP tour will have to pre-qualify, with three making it to the trials. Asked if he was satisfied with the FIBV ruling, Kiraly said, "Satisfied? Absolutely not. Resigned? That would be a better word.
"For one team to sit [until the Olympics] and another to watch until we get down to the semifinals, that's absurd. For us, it's more a matter of getting to the trials than the trials themselves. For the three teams that get to the final four, everyone wants that draw [against Smith and Henkel]. We know that the three teams from our tour are better."
Exactly where the trials will be held has yet to be determined.
"It'll be in the city that wants to pay the most in rights fees," Kiraly said with his typical candor. "Hopefully, it won't be Juneau, Alaska, or Duluth, Minn.."