In the early hours of Wednesday morning, thousands of Brazilians started a raucous party on Copacabana beach.
It was there that Agatha Bednarczuk spiked a ball into the sand to secure Brazil a place in the final of the Olympic women’s beach volleyball tournament. Embracing her playing partner Barbara Seixas de Freitas after beating the American favourites in their semi-finals, music blasted as home fans danced in the stands.
The match finished around 1am local time. Scheduling games at such a late hour may seem odd. There have been fears throughout the tournament that forcing players to perform late into the night would lead to fatigue, resulting in a poorer sporting spectacle. Both the women’s final on Wednesday and men’s final on Thursday begin at midnight.
“It’s not up to us,” says Ary Graça, president of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball, the sport’s world governing body. “The organisers do what the television wants. The most important TV here is American TV.”
Of the 28 sports at the Rio games, it selects a handful for peak-time coverage on American screens. Perennial favourites — swimming, diving, gymnastics, athletics — get plenty of airtime. As does beach volleyball, a sport that entered the Olympics just 20 years ago.
To suit the broadcaster, night matches are timed for viewers on the US west coast and follow the conclusion of marquee races on the athletics track and in the swimming pool. “We have to consider how the television industry works,” says Fernando Lima, FIVB’s secretary-general. “And we want our athletes to be seen.”
TV audiences matter to the Olympics. A report by research body Sportcal estimated that the International Olympic Committee, the governing body for the games, made $8bn in revenues in the four-year cycle encompassing the 2010 Vancouver winter games and the 2012 London summer games. Around $3.91bn was made from media rights. NBC needs high ratings to recoup investment and the media group has said it is on track to sell more than $1bn worth of advertising across its channels during the Rio games.
Beach volleyball is a TV executive’s dream. Matches are easy to follow. Youth audiences are interested. And the female athletes wear bikinis. (Men play in baggy shorts and vests).
“When you see the athleticism of the players, the action is fantastic,” insists Mr Lima, but admitted that “at the Olympic level, most sports have athletes that are physically at the top condition. They have beautiful bodies. Volleyball has this . . . the players are very exposed, let’s say, in beach volleyball.”
The Rio games represents a homecoming for the sport. While six-a-side volleyball can trace its origins to the 19th century, its beachside cousin entered the Atlanta games in 1996. The move came at the behest of Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the IOC. He became enamoured after attending a beach volleyball world championship held on Copacabana, spotting an opportunity for the Olympics to appeal to younger audiences.
TV images are helped by spectacular staging. In Rio, matches are played in the shadow of Sugar Loaf mountain. In London four years ago, the central London skyline loomed over the stadium on Horse Guards Parade. At the next Olympics, organisers want to hold matches under skyscrapers in Shiodome with a view of Tokyo Bay.
While Rio 2016 organisers have found it difficult to sell tickets for supposedly prestige events such as athletics, beach volleyball tickets are the hottest in town. This is despite seats costing R$350 ($110) on average, the games’ most expensive.
The atmosphere is part of the entry price. Matches are played in an environment akin to an open-air nightclub. The semi-finals were played with pop hits from “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes to “Wake Me Up” by Avicci blasting into Rio’s night sky between points.
The party spirit can be distracting. Earlier in the tournament, Swiss player Anouk Verge-Depre complained that she had trouble hearing her playing partner, while the artificial light changed her perception of the ball.
But the sport’s stated aim of gaining popularity worldwide appears to be working. For Beijing 2008, 31 countries attempted to qualify for the beach volleyball tournament; in London, 143; and in Rio, 169.
It may never win over large audiences in some countries, where the Olympics are about bolstering national pride above all else. The UK and China prioritise funding for sports according to the number of medals on offer. With just two golds available from the men’s and women’s tournaments, those countries are unlikely to give their athletes the resources to take on the US and Brazilian teams that dominate the sport.
Mr Graça thinks his sport’s appeal goes beyond providing the competition. “Beach volleyball is a philosophy of life,” he says. “It’s saying to the world: ‘Be happy, have fun, have sun’.”
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