Is it the ultimate beach volleyball venue? Hawaii invented the sport but the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro is the spiritual home of beach volleyball, the sexy sibling of the indoor equivalent. The volleyball venue majestically rises from the pristine sands, not far from the stately Hotel Copacabana Palace, where American singer Barry Manilow mused, in his 1978 hit song of the same name, “At the copa, Copacabana, The hottest spot north of Havana…”
In Rio, the Copacabana is indeed a hotspot. The famed stretch of beach is very different from the bubble at the other clusters of Olympic activity, the Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca, the Deodoro zone and the Maracana zone, semi-demilitarised vestiges of sporting prowess, with colourful draping, an army of volunteers and plenty of shuttle buses.
A symbol of carioca
The Copacabana is Brazil’s touristy postcard and a symbol for Rio, the mad Carioca capital. Cariocas, as Rio’s residents are called, play and live on the beach, munching on snacks, sipping on all-too strong Caipirinhas with maracaju – passion fruit – scanning racks of cheap jewellery and other paraphernalia, and engaging in futvolei, an acrobatic contraption between football and volleyball.
In Leme, in the shadow of the Sugar Loaf Mountain, in an outer corner of Copacabana beach, dozens and dozens of volleyball nets are set up, with locals playing. In many ways, the beach is Brazil’s democratic forum, where everyone can participate in social life. That does come with a caveat.
Copacabana, and the Ipanema beach, mirror Brazilian class differences. The rich and upper class frequent the sands of Leblon, the left stretch of the Ipanema beach. The middle class flock to Ipanema beach, the poor and the locals to Arpoador (the right stretch of Ipanema beach). The Copacabana beach houses the tourist class, with Leme hosting, again, the locals and the poor.
There, in front of Taberna Atlantica, Joao Carlos Reis, 49 and a federal civil servant, played futvolei with Jairzinho, a member of the Brazilian football team which won the football World Cup in 1970. They displayed delightful skills: flicks, flying headers, chest-controls and flighted passes. Reis is also a fervent volleyball aficionado, a borderline rato de praia [beach rat], a knowledgeable and excellent amateur player.
Part of the Rio culture
“Beach volleyball has always been a part of Rio de Janeiro’s culture,” explained Reis. “In the ‘90’s, the sport gained importance with the founding of national and international beach volleyball circuits.”
Last Wednesday, Reis attended a pool match at the 12,000-all-seater temporary stadium. The Brazilian women’s double team Rippel Agatha and Barbara de Freitas, among the favorites, succumbed to 2-0 defeat against Spain. “It felt as if I was on the court,” beamed Reis.
In the men’s draw, the Brazilian duo of Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt progressed to the semi-final stage, defeating the United States on Tuesday. They are one of the top contenders to win gold – on Friday, they dispatched the European champions, Spain’s Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira 24-22 21-13. They enjoyed the vociferous backing of the home fans, all spurred on by tracks from Michel Telo, Gustavo Lima and Taylor Swift. Boos drowned out a five-second attempt at E Viva Espana, with Brazilian fans incessantly straddling the line between the supportive and the outright nasty.
The home duo’s skill set was superior. Midway through the second set, Cerutti made multiple blocks to ensure a comfortable win for the Brazilians. The fans went berserk. Here was a crowd that simply loved every spike and dig, that loved every ace and block. High up in the grandstand, dressed in a tri-colored bikini and a mini-skirt, Renata Mello, 26 and a marketer from Sao Paulo, was enjoying the game.
A country that loves the beach
“Brazil is O Pais Tropical [The tropical country, a reference to the famous Brazilian song from musician Jorge Ben Jor],” said Mello. “It is a country that loves the beach. Beach volleyball is one of the faces of Brazil. The game was already important [in its indoor form]. The energy is superb and everyone is giving their maximum. It’s a wonderful experience [to be here].”
Mello left after the Brazilian game, but as Canadian duo Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley won the next game with the white foam of the Atlantic repeatedly breaking through the Olympic rings, towering over the seaside stand, the venue’s beauty and natural richness were unequivocal.
Beach volleyball has a history of stunning settings - London’s Horse Guards Parade with the Big Ben, Parliament and the Eye as a backdrop, and Sydney’s Bondi Beach, but the Copacabana topples the other venues both scenically and symbolically. It is simply the perfect venue for the game. Beach volleyball at the Copacabana beach is like football at the old Wembley, cricket at Lord’s and lawn tennis at Wimbledon.
So is it the ultimate venue for the sport?
“This is where it all began!” said Reis emphatically.
“Definitely, it is the birthplace of the sport,” said Pavan, who lived two years in Rio de Janeiro. “The fans are knowledgeable and the environment is simply great. It’s rewarding to play here.”