IT IS probably the one and only chance beach volleyballers will ever get to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal, but the Aussie girls are off to a flying start, writes RON REED:
IT’S MID-AFTERNOON on one of Australia’s best beaches. The sun is sizzling, the surf inviting, the beer is cold and the girls are all in bikinis. The scene couldn’t be much more warmly welcoming. So, it’s no surprise that beach volleyball’s debut as a Commonwealth Games sport has become an instant hit. Some sports just have a natural environment where they can’t help but thrive, which was the case on Bondi Beach at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and Copacabana in Rio two years ago. Now, Coolangatta fits the profile perfectly.
Um, perhaps not quite. The temporary facility cost a whopping $11m to build – and then the organisers discovered that Coolangatta sand was too fine so they had to import truckloads of coarser stuff from somewhere else in Queensland. It seems a lot of money for a construction that will be gone the week after next, and it was only very late last year that the organising committee finally came up with ways to juggle the budget to accommodate a sport that was seen as desirable because it does so fit the Gold Coast and indeed the Australian culture.
It is the first time the sport has been played at the CommGames and will almost certainly be the last, with the next host city, Birmingham, which is not within a bull’s roar of anything remotely resembling a beach, having already declared that it is not interested in paying for it.
One of those who pushed hardest for the sport to be included was long-serving Commonwealth Games Australia president Sam Coffa, so he made sure he was on hand to see if his investment was proving worthwhile. He took a seat in one of the few shady spots, the media section, where a volunteer usher who had no idea who he was tried to kick him out. Needless to say, he stayed put and seemed happy with what he saw, which was most of the 4,000 seats filled as the Team Oz girls Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artelo del Solar opened their campaign. They took 35 minutes to register a thumping 21-14 21-9 win over Mariota Angelopoulou and Manolina Konstantinou of Cyprus, which is not exactly a powerhouse of the sport – or any sport, actually.
Ms Artelo del Solar’s name, it is true, does not sound as if she belongs in an Australian team, or even at a Commonwealth Games and there is good reason for that. She is Peruvian but her family moved to Sydney when she was 11 and her brother talked her into playing in a BV tournament. “I was hooked immediately,” says the now 24-year-old.
Clancy, 25, is the first Indigenous athlete to represent Australia at this sport. She took it up after being inspired by the original golden girls, Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. She does it, she says, “for me and my culture. I hope I inspire people to dream and do things that haven’t been done before”.
So, in some ways they are a bit of an odd couple. But they’ll have plenty of fans over the next few days, in which they also play Scotland and Grenada in their round-robin pool. Both Olympians in Rio two years ago, they joined forces only last October and haven’t been beaten since. That makes them among of the gold medal favourites, along with the Canadians Melissa Humana -Paredes and Sarah Pavan.
In their own group, the Scots will give them most trouble, even though their two players have a combined age of 79 in what is usually perceived to be a young people’s pursuit. Melissa Coutts is 47 and Lynne Beattie 32 but they started with a frisky enough 2-0 win over Grenada which took less than half an hour.
Actually age isn’t such an issue. When they won in Sydney, Pottharst was 35 and Cook 26, and they were still competing at Olympic level at 39 and 37 respectively – and still looking pretty good doing it, if such an observation is not too politically correct.
Anyway, so far so good for the Aussies, who declared themselves not only happy with their form but delighted by the atmosphere in the stadium. “We just keep calm and cool. We have a strong belief in ourselves and that will pay off in the end,” they said.
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.