Never has a beach volleyball match held such significance

IT HAD to happen that Russia and Georgia would meet here in Beijing, on the Olympic sporting field. Yesterday, hours after the two countries had stopped fighting for real, their respective teams confronted each other before a baying, partisan crowd in a sporting arena – clad in bikinis.

Surely no beach volleyball match in Olympic history has been so fraught with tension, so loaded with off-the-court significance, as this. Nor had an early-morning heat in women's preliminary pool C ever been so popular with the world's media, who, along with 12,200 spectators, squeezed into the compact Chaoyang Park beach volleyball ground.

The game itself started with a hug and ended in a tantrum. Along the way, there was drama, superb athleticism, a stirring fightback, sore losers and a plot twist that, once again, like the fake fireworks and the miming child singer of the opening ceremony, exposed these Olympic Games to the charge of duplicity.

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It seemed that there was universal support for the Georgians, with chants of "Georgia! Georgia!" ringing around the arena and rapturous cheers accompanying their every score.

Yet this perhaps owed not so much to support in the face of Russia's invasion, as the fact that for much of the match the Georgians were the underdogs. They started poorly, losing the first set 21-10, before staging a remarkable comeback to win the match and send the highly fancied Russians crashing out of the tournament.

In one corner of the arena, the support was especially vociferous, but these fans were not Georgians.

Instead, they wore the familiar yellow football shirts and green curly wigs of Brazil supporters.

Asked why they were supporting the Georgians, their ringleader insisted it had nothing to do with any protest over the Russian invasion.

"No, no," he said. "It's because they're Brazilian."

And this was the twist: the two girls playing for Georgia, Saka and Rtvelo, were, indeed, Brazilian.

In the aftermath of their defeat, this prompted some bitter words from the Russian pair of Natalia Uryadova and Alexandra Shiryaena. "If they are Georgian, then they are the best," said Shiryaena as she left the court. "But they are not Georgian, they are Brazilian.

"They don't even know who the Georgian president is. How can you call them Georgians?"

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Saka – real name Cristine Santanna – responded: "For the past two years, I have only represented Georgia, so I really feel like a Georgian."

And she had the perfect riposte to the charge of not knowing that the president of her adopted country was Mikheil Saakashvili. "Of course I know who the president is – he signed my passport! Two days ago, I was with the president's wife," she said.

It transpired, however, that Saka and Rtvelo, whose real name is Andrezza Chagas, have been to Georgia only twice, the purpose of both visits being to secure the passports that would allow them to participate in the Olympics. "We still live in Brazil, because it's not so easy to play beach volleyball in Georgia," Saka said.

The two Russians sulked throughout the post-match press conference, Shiryaena insisting that "we were not beaten by Georgia – we were beaten by Brazil". Saka then tried a peace-making intervention, saying: "I want to congratulate them. We had a good match, we fought our hardest – I don't want this to be a war between us. I appreciate and respect them as players."

It made no difference. The Russian pair, in particular Shiryaena, stared blankly into space, contemplating their early exit and, perhaps, the response awaiting them back home.

Home is exactly where, according to Saka, the vast majority of the 35-strong Georgian team would like to be. "The other day, everybody was outside the (athletes'] village," she said. "They were saying, 'Let's go'. They have family back home."

It was left to Levan Akhvlediani, the president of the Georgian Volleyball Federation, to speak for his country's contingent. "Some of our athletes wanted to go home, but president Saakashvili said 'No'. Now we must stay to give some happiness to people back home. We stay because we respect the Olympic principle of participation," he said.

"Of course, it is difficult – I have slept only two, maybe three hours since I heard about the war. But I think the people in Georgia will be happy that we won – not because we beat Russia, but because we're in the next round. The Russians were bad losers, yes.

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"I think," shrugged Akhvlediani, "that it's very good that Georgia are through and Russia are going home."