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Games interrupt Bondi lifestyle


SYDNEY -- Bondi Beach has sand, topless sunbathers, bemused tourists and lifeguards old enough to be grandparents. It's exercise zealots working out in the morning, pensioners strolling in the afternoon and lovers snuggling in the evening. It's Old English values colliding with New World hedonism.

It is the funkiest backdrop the Olympics have ever seen.

Australia's most famous urban beach now has beach volleyball. A horror of a stadium has been built in the middle of the beach, facing 10,000 seats, fenced off with high metal barriers and surrounded with security guards.

But even if most of the spectators won't be able to see the Pacific Ocean during the competition, which begins this weekend, this is a natural home for beach volleyball. Fast-paced, made-for-television and laced with an urban edge, the sport belongs right here, on Bondi, with its frenetic energy and unusual beauty.

Sidney's 4 million residents have prettier beaches, beaches with softer sand, more challenging waves and more spectacular backgrounds. But for convenience and sheer brass, Bondi can't be beat.

Beach culture thrives in Australia. In a vast continent, nearly a third of the 19 million have chosen to live within a 30-minute drive of the beach. It is what divides Australia from its mother country, Great Britain.

In Britain, people go to the sea bundled in sweaters against the cold. They ride donkeys, drink piping hot tea and venture out on enormous Victorian boardwalks that lead past rides and to grand old stages where tired old stars belt out old songs for an audience of the elderly. Occasionally, the British even go for a swim.

But in Australia, with its turquoise water and broiling sun, clothes are shed, skin is revealed, and a young country of young people dives in the sea.

On the walk to the beach, you can see Bondi's roots. This is a part of Sydney that has seen wave after wave of immigrants, coming to Australia in search of a fresh start.

Shops and restaurants reflect the changing times, from Chinese to Vietnamese, bagels to kebabs, fish 'n' chips to pizza. And then, down a curve, over the trees, there's Bondi, its broad beach backed by a bowl-shaped lawn, with rocky outcrops at the corners.

It's 30 minutes by car from downtown Sydney, close enough for a business person to head home, pick up the kids and go for a swim before dinner.

It seems as if nearly anything goes at Bondi. On summer weekends, 50,000 people cram the beach and the grassy terraces, transforming sedate sun-seeking into a raucous stadium rock show.

There are book stores, restaurants and tattoo shops. There's an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. A fish shop sells shrimp the size of a fighter's fist. There are skateboarders and inline skaters, mothers with strollers and a few tourists with backpacks.

The U.S. men's and women's beach volleyball teams put on a show this week, practicing for the public on the sand instead of inside the stadium compound. And for another few days, Bondi still had its usual laid-back pace, with the regulars enjoying the quiet before the Olympic competitions begin.

"It's totally cultural, very open-minded" is how a singer named Shiney Lafai describes the beach. "Everyone gets into whatever their own passion is. It's on the edge of the city and it's very clean."

Over near the rocks, the surfers angle for the best waves. Among the oldest and steadiest is Dave Byron, a 50-something tugboat deckhand who has been riding the waves since 1959.

"I hope to ride my last wave in 2059," he says.

Byron is easy to spot in the surf. It might be 60 degrees in the water, but he's dressed in baggy swimming trunks, while all around him are younger surfers zipped into wetsuits. Married with four children, he even surfs with his kids.

"This is just the best lifestyle in the world," he says. "It's basically playtime. We work to live. We don't live to work."

Bondi's first surf club started in 1906. It wasn't until the late 1950s when the sport took off, as Australia mirrored the easy-living Southern California surfing lifestyle.

Veterans like Byron try to pass on the sport to a younger generation. But he laments, "It's different these days. There is a lot of aggression among the young kids. We never had it that way."

The old-timers also try to remember past surfing legends, like Jack Mays, known as Bluie. Mays died a few years ago, and his surfing friends held a barbecue in his honor.

They were going to spread his ashes in the sea, until Mays' granddaughter persuaded them that the old man would have liked a final resting place overlooking the sea.

The surfers stashed the urn in a sandstone wall and put up a plaque to "one of the pioneers of Australian surfing."

"That's where he wanted to be," Byron says, pointing to the plaque that overlooks the best surfing spot on Bondi.

The plaque clearly belongs on the beach. But the garish temporary stadium, where the beach volleyballers will play, is an eyesore.

About 100 people staged a protest to try to prevent the bulldozers from preparing the site in May. One group now claims it will attempt to use mirrors to reflect the sun and disrupt television coverage of the beach volleyball.

Stephen Lenn, who swims daily, has decorated the front of his art shop with hand-painted signs condemning the stadium that swallowed a beach. But even he has a typically quirky, Bondi-type attitude to the Games.

"I've nothing against the Olympics," Lenn says. "I hope it all goes well. It's just that volleyball is such an excruciating sport to watch."

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