Nation & World

Georgian-Russian hostilities spill over to beach volleyball

BEIJING — In a bikini version of real-life conflict, the Georgian and Russian women's beach volleyball teams met in the sand Wednesday, and underdog Georgia squeaked out a victory in three sets — to the delight of the Chinese crowd.

But animosity boiled over after the match, when the Russian competitors refused to acknowledge that their side actually lost to Georgia.

Alexandra Shiryaeva, one of the two Russian players, sneered that both Georgian players are native-born Brazilians who only recently obtained Georgian passports so they could play in the Olympics.

"They don't even know who the Georgian president is, how can you call them Georgians? They are Brazilians and that is who we played against today," Shiryaeva said.Her partner on the sand patch, Natalia Uryadova, echoed her feelings: "We're not actually playing against the Georgian team."

Georgian Volleyball Federation President Levan Akhvlediani called the Russians "bad losers" and said the 21-10, 20-22, 12-15 victory for his nation's team was "wonderful for the Georgian people."

Looking tired but gleeful, Akhvlediani said volleyball is a huge sport in Georgia, supported heavily President Mikheil Saakashvili's wife, a former volleyball player. He said the victory provides happiness to a 35-member Georgian Olympic squad that has been on edge since war erupted last week between Georgia and Russian over the South Ossetia region.

"I didn't sleep since the war," Akhvlediani said. "I sleep three hours, two hours, four hours. Every morning, (I'm) calling my family, 'What’s going on?' "

The volleyball match up probably would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the violent flare-up between the two nations. The Russian team was seeded 15th and the Georgian team 22nd coming into the games, and both had already lost their first two contests.

But the capacity crowd came to its feet several times as the Georgian team clawed back from a first set loss, and beat Russia at match point in the second set. Chinese spectators said they supported Georgia as a smaller country pitted against larger Russia.

Many fans clearly didn't know that the bronzed players in Georgian team colors, Christine "Saka" Santanna and Andrezza "Rtvelo" Chagas, are originally from Brazil.

The nicknames of the two, "Saka" and "Rtvelo," together spell the name of the country in the Georgian language. Georgia also sports a men’s beach volleyball team, and both players are also Brazilian-born, arriving in 2006 to play for their new country. The nicknames given to them are "Geor" and "Gia" Santanna, 29, is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, while Chagas, 31, comes from Manaus, a port city on the Amazon River. Neither was good enough for the Brazilian beach volleyball team.

"We were not very good players in Brazil. But we grow as we play for Georgia," Santanna said.

She disputed the characterization that she isn’t really Georgian.

"I have double citizenship. I feel like I'm a Georgian," Santanna said. "We fought two years to be here."

Akhvlediani described the Russian allegation that the Brazilian-born players are ringers as "not fair," saying many native Georgians compete for other countries, particularly in wrestling.

The Georgian Olympic squad almost pulled out of the games over the weekend amid fighting over breakaway South Ossetia. Georgian forces had pushed into the region to regain Tbilisi's control after 16 years of independent rule by the Moscow-backed region but were routed after five days of fighting with Russian forces.

Akhvlediani said it was better for the two sides to battle in the volleyball sand pit.

"It's better to make a war . . . on the sporting fields," Akhvlediani said.

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