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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Russians, a Ball at the Beach

ST. PETERSBURG -- First there was the Jamaican bobsled team at the Winter Olympics. Now, at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, another unlikely phenomenon is making its debut appearance at an internationally televised event: a Russian beach volleyball squad.

Russia's leading two-man beach volleyball team of Gennady Cherimisov and Ruslan Dayanov created a stir Sunday when they defeated the team from France in the opening round.

Fans at the event, which was held on a short strip of sand in the shadow of St. Petersburg's legendary imperial prison, the Petropavlovsk Fortress, were generally divided into two categories.

There were the Russians, who loudly cheered on their team.

Then there were the foreign tourists, who spent about half their time applying suntan lotion while they watched, and the other half scratching their heads and saying: "Who are these guys? And where do they practice?"

"We get a lot of strange reactions," said Natasha Belarussova of the Russian women's team, which finished last in its group in the qualifying round.

"Everywhere we go, people ask us: where do you have sand? People can't get used to a Russian playing anything but hockey."

By contrast beach volleyball has strong Southern California connotations with an aura of barbecues, bikinis and six-packs of beer.

Despite the public perception of Russia being an ice-bound country devoid of a California-style beach culture, there is really nothing unusual about a Russian beach volleyball team making a successful appearance on a world-class level.

For one thing, strange as it may seem, beach volleyball, a sport which first appeared in organized form in the 1920s on the beaches of Brazil and Southern California, existed here even during Soviet times.

According to Yevgeny Fomin of the Russian Volleyball Federation, Russians were playing beach volleyball before World War II on the beaches of the Baltic countries and on the Black Sea.

"It wasn't like Southern California, but it was here," said Fomin. "It was basically the same sport, without the surfing and the bikinis. It just wasn't organized."

Organized two-player beach volleyball in the form presented at the Goodwill Games is essentially the same sport as regular indoor volleyball, only played on sand, with a much smaller territory, and with two players instead of six. This version of the sport made its first official appearance in the Soviet Union in Pirita, Estonia, in 1989.

By that time, however, indoor volleyball, along with basketball and hockey -- a stable of cold-weather culture recreation -- was already one of the most popular sports in the country, and there was a wealth of players ready to hit the beaches.

To give some idea of Russia's surprising strength on the international world volleyball scene, Russia last year finished second, behind Brazil, in world team indoor competition, while in Barcelona in 1992, Russia came away with a bronze medal in volleyball.

The United States, by contrast, finished fifth that year.

In Tuesday's action, the U.S. team of Karolyn Kirby and Liz Masakayan of San Diego won the gold medal in women's beach volleyball.

Led by Kirby's powerful jump serves, the American women won in straight sets -- 12-9, 12-1 -- over Brazil's Monica Rodrigues and Adriana Samuel.

On the men's side, Norway's Jan Kvalhein and Bjoern Naaseide won the gold medal by defeating the U.S. team of Jeff Williams and Carlos Briceno 12-8, 12-6.

The Russian men lost to Brazil and finished out of medal contention in a consolation round.

Cherimisov and Dayanov are both products of Russia's indoor volleyball program.

Cherimisov played for CSKA in Moscow and currently plays for a pro-league in Italy while Dayanov plays for the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture.

Both learned to play beach volleyball informally while vacationing on the beaches of the Black Sea.

The fortress location of the beach volleyball competition at the Goodwill games drew high marks from devoted followers of the sport.

"This has to be one of the coolest places a beach volleyball tournament has ever been held on," san Sean Reed, 31, a tourist from San Diego, California.

Reed, who wore a T-shirt that read "Global Village Idiot," said that he has played beach volleyball at Venice Beach in the Los Angeles suburbs, in Majorca, Spain, and in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"But I've never seen anything like this," he said, pointing at the Fortress Wall. "They used to torture people here, didn't they? That's a first for the sport, believe me."