James Werrell

The beguiling allure of the summer Games

In beach volleyball, Americans were privileged to be represented by the team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross.
In beach volleyball, Americans were privileged to be represented by the team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross. AP

Women’s Olympic beach volleyball: Come for the bikinis; stay for the sport!

Actually, the bikinis worn by the women’s volleyball players are an issue only for a few cranks on social media who complain they are too revealing. For this sport, however, they seem entirely utilitarian and well suited to the need to be able to leap, sprint, slam and dive. And do it on sand.

The bikinis worn by the volleyball players, it should be noted, also are considerably more ample than those worn by many of the Brazilians on the beaches of Rio.

But attire aside, it’s the sport that grabs you. After only a few minutes of watching, you’re locked into this duel in the sand, an amazing display of physical prowess and stamina – or, should we say, grit.

For fans of the Olympics, it’s customary to root for countrymen. It’s also practical. We’ve never heard of most of these people before, so if we want athletes to cheer for, we cheer the Americans.

In beach volleyball, Americans were privileged to be represented by the team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross. These two made it all the way to the semifinals before falling to Brazil. They would come back and beat Brazil later to win the bronze medal.

But their performance was more astounding than that. They lost only three sets during the entire competition, the last two to Brazil.

And those were only the third and fourth lost sets of Walsh Jennings’ Olympic career. Dating back to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the 38-year-old has 26 wins and, now, one loss.

Many of us probably will forget her name soon after the Olympic torch is extinguished, but for now we know we have witnessed greatness. And that really is the attraction of these Games.

Some, of course, are content to let this quadrennial event slip by without notice. Others binge on the Games, watching every event they can.

Many more, it seems, tune in for a glimpse and end up watching well past a sensible bedtime to see how the men’s kayaking finals turn out.

That’s the beauty and, in a way, the absurdity of the Olympics. When else would we set aside time to watch a kayaking competition? Or field hockey? Or javelin throwing? Or dressage? Or archery? Or rowing? Or badminton?

And why, every four years, do we go absolutely nuts over girls in spangly outfits bouncing around on beams as wide as a credit card or hurling themselves impossibly high into the air and cartwheeling across the floor to the sound of bad music?

It has to do with excellence. There’s something about watching the best athletes in the world in their sport – even if it’s table tennis – as they compete for gold.

We’re willing to put aside the somewhat creepy fact that these people have done nothing else for the past four years but concentrate on their sport to the exclusion of most other normal human activities. But that, too, adds to the drama.

One of the semifinal races for the 110-meter hurdle event featured a runner from Haiti who got tangled up in the first hurdle out of the blocks and ended up on his back. His Olympic Games were over in less than a second. All that training for nothing!

But he got up and finished the race anyway. It was heroics on the small scale, the human scale, the poetry of individual achievement.

And that’s really why we stay up too late to watch.

James Werrell is the opinion page editor of The Herald.