BEIJING The winner of the Olympic beach volleyball might just be Hainan province. The tropical island off China's southern coast provided the 17,000 tonnes of sand shipped to Beijing for the Olympics, and if the athletes' first reactions are anything to go by, it is quickly winning new fans.
"This sand is fabulous. It's so soft it tickles your feet," said U.S. defending champion Kerri Walsh, who has competed on many of the world's most famous beaches.
Brazilian-born Cristine Santanna, who now plays for Georgia, said it was like performing on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro despite the sand lying in huge pits in the centre of a crowded city rather than at home on the shores of the South China Sea.
The sand used for beach volleyball is strictly regulated by the international federation -- no stones or shells, not too coarse nor too compact, nor too fine so it does not stick to players' bodies.
China had just the answer.
Last year, the luxuriously soft sand was shoveled into bags on the palm-fringed beaches of Hainan, nicknamed "China's Hawaii" despite being far less developed as a tourist centre than its U.S. namesake.
It was then shipped from China's island province to Tian Jin, piled on to trucks, driven to Beijing and tipped out in the Chaoyang stadium and practice courts, where it is hosed and raked regularly to keep it from packing down too densely.
Former Olympic champion Karch Kiraly agreed the sand was something quite special even if the 12,200-seat stadium could not match the beauty of the 2000 Olympics when the beach volleyball was held on the sprawling sands of Bondi Beach.
"The sand is phenomenal," he said. "It's a lot better than in Greece. In Sydney, the court was by a beach. If it's not by a beach, this is the best."
(Editing by Ralph Gowling)
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