Beach volleyball players have competed for Olympic gold in parks and on royal parade grounds, but at the Rio Games beach volleyball will actually be played on a beach. After Sydney 2000, when the iconic Bondi Beach was the venue, Rio 2016 is the second time for the volleyball tournament to take place on a genuine stretch of sand shared by sun worshippers and surfers.
The United States, having invented the game, can claim to be the home of beach volleyball, but its soul lives in Brazil, and Copacabana beach is the altar where they come to worship. The stretch of white sand watched over by the statue of Christ the Redeemer is probably the most famous beach in the world, making Copacabana the quintessential venue for the sport's showcase event.
Brazilian beach volleyball players will seek inspiration from one of the country's most vibrant venues as they attempt to end traditional American domination of the event at the Olympics. Brazilian female favourites Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca can bank on fervent fans at the Copacabana where the sport is an intrinsic part of Rio's coastal culture and does not require an Olympics to get an audience. But experienced American Kerri Walsh Jennings has topped the podium at the last three Olympics. This will be the first time the American has gone for gold on an actual beach.
"Playing in Copa is amazing. The energy is electric and it absolutely does elevate play. It is going to be amazing to play in front of such crazy, passionate fans. It is something we all relish,” she said.
Ranked third in the world, 37-year-old Walsh Jennings, nicknamed ‘Six Feet of Sunshine’, and new playing partner April Ross, will be among the favourites again in Rio. Should Walsh Jennings get to the top of the podium, she would emulate long-jumper Carl Lewis and discus thrower Al Oerter as the only athletes to have won four consecutive Olympic golds in the same individual event.
Whatever happens this time, everyone agrees on one thing: Copacabana is the most incredible volleyball venue in Olympic history. While the athletes will be focusing on the serious business in Rio, the fans are braced for an Olympic beach party, with the action starting early in the day and running late into the evening. Several matches are scheduled for a midnight start. With the samba and pounding surf providing a sunny soundtrack, beach volleyball is one of the hottest tickets in town.
"Brazil has so much passion for the game. Really it is going to be an incredible atmosphere down there,” said Lauren Fendrick, who will partner Brooke Sweat in the other US women's entry. "The energy, I think, is going to take level of play beyond what we have seen anywhere in the world up to this point.”
''That's how we prefer it. We love a little wind, the hot sun, just those little elements that a beach brings,'' said American player Jacob Gibb.
And for Brazilian contestants like Pedro Solberg, the sandy venue is particularly special: ''It's a unique opportunity in my life. I just want to enjoy this moment and have fun.''