Israel, Iran and the Hot Volleyball Girls

BEIJING - David Blatt is a great basketball coach, but if he ever has problems finding a job he can always start a new career in public relations.

In the past 24 hours the U.S.-born Israeli, who is in Beijing coaching the Russian basketball team, visited the Israeli delegation in the Olympic Village twice, including a meeting and photo-op with President Shimon Peres.

Blatt yesterday gave a great show against the Iranians when he shook hands with every member of their team and declared that the Olympics are above politics. "Only in the Olympics can an Israeli coach shake the hand of an Iranian player," he said.

But please, Blatt may be an Israeli citizen but he is the coach of the Russian team. If he were the coach of the Israeli team, no Iranians would have shaken his hand or had their photo taken with him - the Iranians would not have even turned up for the game.

Similarly, an Iranian swimmer will not show up for his qualifying round because Israeli swimmer Tom Be'eri will be competing, so let's not mix sports and politics. As far as the Iranians are concerned, Israelis are part of an evil entity, unless of course they also have American passports and happen to coach a Russian team.

More a circus than a sport

You can't write anything politically correct about this branch of sport. I mean, you can but then you would have to distort the truth. In recent years it has turned into one of the most popular sports in existence. Although it all began in Santa Monica before the First World War, the discipline remained unknown until the 1980s when it was exported to Brazil and, beginning in 1996, became an Olympic sport drawing lots of attention. The idea is simple: Combine sport with a ball and set it all at the beach. But beach soccer, albeit a very popular game, is nowhere near becoming an Olympic sport, as is true of beach volleyball.

Let's face it - the most exciting thing about it is the view: Beach volleyball is probably the only sport where the women's games are more interesting than those of the men. The Chinese have been flocking to watch the matches and seem to genuinely take an interest in them. Most of the Westerners, however, seem to show up with their buddies to stare at the slender girls in bikinis playing volleyball.

Of course, the game itself is exciting, but the competition is not the point. Lots of music is played (cheesy Western pop from the '80s), Chinese cheerleaders put on a show during halftime and when the frequent timeouts are called. Photographers have a hard time working tirelessly to snap photos of the scantily-clothed women. When the men's competition begins, however, many of them just leave or take a nap. A photograph of some Italian stallion is nice but it's not why their editors sent them there.

All the female players, whether they are from Austria, Greece, Brazil or Mexico, seem to have been manufactured at the same factory and differ only in skin tone and hair color. Fashion is also an integral part of the game: Sunglasses are essential at all times, even if it's cloudy. The stadium is an interesting venue in itself: The 12,200-seater is built around a sandbox where the games are held. Beijing, of course, is nowhere near the sea, but that's no problem. The sand, an NBS commentator who is herself a former volleyball player says, was imported from Hainan Island, the southernmost part of China."The Chinese needed time to warm up to the concept," she said. "It seemed like a strange sport to them."

Meanwhile, the Brazilian male and female teams dominated the games but truth be told, if the competitors wore full-body swimsuits, I'm not sure people would rush to see the competition, which still seems more like a circus act than a real sport.