James Lawton: On the beach, it was Georgia who beat Russia (with just a little help from Brazil)
A pair of Brazilian beach volleyball players strike a small sporting blow for a war-torn nation
Published 14/08/2008 | 11:29
Around the time the news was drawing at least a small frown in the Kremlin, you couldn't help wishing there were a few more mercenaries like Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Martins das Chagas.
They do not make war, they play on the sand and here yesterday they did it with such passion and lithe brilliance it made a headline that in another context would have turned the world on its head.
Surreal but also impeccably accurate, it announced Georgia's defeat of Russia, with a little help from their Brazilian friends.
That the victory of "Saka" and "Rtvelo" – joined together the names form the word Georgia in Georgian – was accomplished at the Olympic beach volleyball stadium – and accompanied by bikini-clad cheerleaders dancing to the music of Sheryl Crow and Wham – did not seem to restrain the joy of the team who had been ordered by their nation's President, Mikhail Saakashvili, to stay at the Olympics despite the fact that their homeland was being bombed.
In her triumph Saka, aka Santanna, a 29-year-old from Sao Paulo who was on the point of collapse before the winning point against Russia's Natalya Uryadova and Alexandra Shiryaeva, did not attempt to blur the line between the meanings of war and sport, but she did want to make something clear, especially to Uryadova.
"For two years I have carried two passports but today I was a Georgian – just that. I was up until 3.30 in the morning with my team-mates when it was being decided whether we should stay or go home and I saw how difficult it was for Nino Salukvadeze to go out and win a bronze medal in pistol shooting with all her worries about what was happening back home.
"Today we went out with only one idea – it was to stay in these Olympics, to keep everybody's dream of winning a medal for our country alive. Yes, I'm glad we are still in – and the Russians are out."
Saka's pleasure at the third-set victory – after losing the first 21-10 – had vanished from her face when she heard of the comments of the beaten Uryadova.
The Russian had declared: "I should say that the competition has been outstanding and our opponents have made big progress in the last half year. Our Olympics are over because we have lost a game today and we regret it but I have to say we were not playing against the Georgian team – we were playing against Brazilians. They probably don't know the name of the president of Georgia."
Another barb came from Uryadova's team-mate Shiryaeva when she said: "Russia is big, Georgia is small. To me it is stupid for Georgia to start a war against us. I am a volleyball player. I do not understand anything about war."
Saka, who with Rtvelo had embraced the Russians before the game, was indignant. "Of course I know the name of Mikhail Saakashvili. He signed my passport. I also know his wife. I met her in the Olympic village a few days ago. She used to play volleyball and she is delighted that we are developing the game in Georgia. I want to take some young Georgian players to Brazil, where it is better for practice. I have a purpose now."
Yesterday it was to move against the might of Russia, sometimes with the composure and the aura of her compatriot from Ipanema. After the shock of being swept aside in the first set – and surviving the nausea that came just before the moment of triumph – she largely did it. It helped that her team-mate Rtvelo whispered: "Just one more point and we have done it."
Rtvelo, shorter and more aggressive, said that her own purpose was to remind the world in general, and the Russians in particular, that she and Saka were representing a warrior nation. "I know what kind of people I am playing for. They are fighters who do not give up easily."
Amid the celebrations a short, portly man with thinning hair dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts seemed to capture best the ambivalence of someone not sure whether to respond to a fantasy of sport or some of the deepest cruelties of real life.
Levan Akhvlediani is the president of the Georgian Volleyball Association – and the creator of yesterday's triumph – and from a middle of a media scrimmage he said: "The world may see this as a small win but sometimes a small win can be great. There are many difficulties and uncertainties facing us all, but this is the feeling I have at this moment.
"Today's team was formed because we have good contacts in Brazil, coaches who have helped us and who we hope will help us again in the future. It's official that Saka and Rtvelo are Georgian. We have met all the requirements and you know there are many Georgians in the teams of other countries, for example wrestlers.
"Now it is such a difficult situation in Georgia. Nobody has a lot of information. We see pictures in the newspapers and on the television and they are not good. Everybody's asking, 'What's going on, what's happening?' We don't know and we have to tell that to all the people in the Olympic Village who keep asking. Yes, our athletes wanted to go home but our president said no. It means we must stay and try to give some happiness to people back home. We respect the Olympic Games and one reason we are staying is that we particularly respect the Olympic principle of participation.
"Although the Russians were bad losers, I do wish them success in the future. However, from our position we do have a message for everyone. If you are going to make war, it is better to do it on the field. I say that with some feeling because I have had just a few hours' sleep since the start of the war."
Saka and Rtvelo have their homes in Brazil but they say that for some time their fate is bound up with the Georgians. Saka said: "We have a duty to Georgia. They have given us the Olympics. We were not such good players in Brazil but we have grown here. In Brazil there are so many good players they could make up eight or nine teams to compete at this level. So you have to remember what people have given to you and I do know that when the team were up in the night and wondering what to do, I thought, 'Well, if they go back, what do I do. I do not have a home in Georgia but then I thought, I have to go back there. I'm part of these people now, I am more Georgian now. We know now that it was probably good that we stayed because we would have been flying back to many dangers. We heard that the airport had been bombed."
In the morning sunshine of victory there was not a seat to be had in the 11,000-capacity stadium. The world wanted to know if there might just be some flashpoint of anger, some spectacle of rage that would be something of an echo of the affray in the Olympic Pool in Melbourne in 1956 when Hungary played Russia in a water polo match soon after Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest.
There was blood in the pool in Melbourne. Here yesterday there was not a speck of it on the sand. Just, at the end it seemed, two girl mercenaries of sport who had been touched so unexpectedly by war – and whose reaction was to fight, in their way, for a country they were proud to call their own.