Ignore the panting about half-naked players in bikinis: This is an empowering sport.
Beach volleyball's appeal to most men is obvious and inescapable. The sport, after all, involves pairs of tall, skinny girls in skimpy bathing suits swatting a ball back and forth in a large sandbox.
Volleyball's sexiness has been exhaustively documented by its male fans. Check out The Chive's 32 hottest photos of female beach volleyball players. Or Buzzfeed's video of Women's Beach Volleyball Players In Super Slow Motion. Or the countless booty-focused video tributes to the athletes on YouTube. There's also Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a video game that features ridiculously voluptuous players in various states of undress. You get the point. (Conversely, when the sport's sexiness is threatened, it's been news. When dropping temperatures on Saturday night forced volleyball players to wear long-sleeved shirts, the outfit change made the news wires: "BYE BYE BIKINIS," read the Associated Press headline.)
Women shouldn't be fooled by the sexy outfits (and the panting male response to them), however: Beach volleyball is an empowering sport. And the veteran U.S. team in particular dispels a host of tired stereotypes about women athletes, female friendship, and the tricky dance of work-life balance.
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The sport's clearest appeal is in the fact that the veteran American women's beach volleyball team is excellent. Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor won gold at the last two Olympics, and they've never lost a set (let alone a match) at the Games. (The U.S. also has first-time Olympians Jen Kessy and April Ross competing in this year's Games.) The streak has continued at the Olympics this year: They've won their first two preliminary matches, against Australia and the Czech Republic, pretty easily. Watching them play, it's easy to see why. Walsh and May-Treanor are in fantastic shape, of course, but the sport is about more than athleticism. It involves strategy and teamwork, which Walsh and May-Treanor have mastered. (They actually went to a sports psychologist to figure out how to work better together on the court.) Watching women dominate a sport that requires both physical toughness and mental agility is a salvo against the whole history of assumptions that women have inadequate bodies and brains.
Some of the other inspiring aspects of women's beach volleyball are less immediately obvious. One is the age factor. Unlike gymnastics and swimming, which favor younger female athletes (with some exceptions, of course), women can excel at beach volleyball well past their teens and early 20s. Walsh is 33, and May-Treanor turned 35 this week. The top-ranked Brazilian team is made up of a 29-year-old and a 30-year-old.
The sport's inclusion of older athletes is inspiring for its own sake—yes, women have value even when they're no longer nubile 18-year-olds! But as thirtysomething Olympic medal contenders, Walsh and May-Treanor have another sort of effect on the women who watch them. Both women are married—Walsh with children—and so they offer insight into the "having it all" questions that younger, unmarried female Olympians can't yet provide.*
Walsh calls her kids "part of my team" and thinks of her volleyball career as a "family mission that we're on." During NBC's broadcast of the U.S.'s match against the Czech Republic on Monday, commentators said Walsh thinks she became a better player after she had children, because her kids gave her something to focus on besides her game. Walsh's attitude toward her family is deeply refreshing. Not only is she able to have a family while still achieving her field's highest level of success, but she's also able to articulate how that family actually helps rather than hinders her career.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of watching women's beach volleyball is the post-game interview. When they talk about their performance on the court, Walsh and May-Treanor strike a unique balance between humility and confidence. This video (which is not embeddable—grr, NBC), in which they dissect their gold-medal match at the 2008 Olympics, offers a good example of how they build one another up as teammates. Walsh points out how May-Treanor saved a crucial play against the Chinese team: "That was awesome ... I was so relieved that she got that point for me." Later in the interview, May-Treanor offers similar praise to Walsh, showing how her partner was able to make the match-winning point. So much for the tired stereotype that women are constantly cutting one other down.
So, yes, it's easy to heave a sigh and change the channel the next time NBC commentator John McEnroe asks two Olympic gold-medalists how they feel about playing sports in bikinis. But women should resist that urge. Look past the outfits, and beach volleyball is extremely attractive to women, too.
* This post originally stated that May-Treanor has children. Also, the post originally implied that May-Treanor and Walsh were the only women's volleyball team from the U.S. at this year's Olympics. We regret the errors.