Canadian sandman brings the beach to Beijing

Aug. 15, 2008, 1:41 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) When Tiger Woods lines up a putt at the Masters, he's standing on the most exquisitely manicured bentgrass that greenskeepers can provide. Kevin Garnett can dive to the Boston Celtics' famous parquet floor without worrying about splinters.

For beach volleyball players, the sand is every bit as important. The surface of the court dictates strategy, helps them avoid injuries and stays cool in the summer sun.

Picking the right stuff for the Olympics was as complex as choosing the White House Christmas tree, and much more expensive, with organizers spending $1.28 million to find the sand for the Olympic venue at Chaoyang Park, prepare it and ship it to Beijing.

"I spent many a sleepless night before I finally found the right recipe," said Todd Knapton, who led the project for a Canadian company that has supplied sand for the last three Olympics. "We hit it right on the nose. I still say that's some of the best sand I've ever seen in the world."

Knapton had samples sent to him from a half-dozen spots in China, and made four trips over the past three years before finally finding what he needed on Hainan Island, in the South China Sea.

"We could have brought sand from elsewhere," he said, "but the Chinese really wanted to use sand from their country. I think it was a pride thing."

Anyone who's been to the shore knows the feeling of sand sifting through the toes: the crunch of the seashells, the smell of seaweed, the feeling of the fine silt that sticks to your feet and tracks all the way back to the hotel shower.

But the Olympics is no walk on the beach.

Good volleyball sand isn't necessarily the same stuff you'd want for sunbathing or a jog at the shore. It must have the right shape, so it doesn't compact and get hard like cement; the right size, so it doesn't get dusty; and the right color, so it doesn't get too hot (and looks good on TV).

"The quality of the sand is hugely important to the game," American Kerri Walsh said. "This sand is beautiful. Wherever they brought it from is great."

Players know that the characteristics of the sand can change the tone of a match, or determine the outcome. Fine sand can leave divots that cause twisted ankles and knees, or it can pack into a hard surface that favors jumping and spiking - more like the indoor game.

"Sometimes you feel like you want to wear shoes," Walsh said derisively.

If the grains are too big, the players get scraped up. If the sand is too deep, it's like trying to run in a children's ball pit. If the sand is too shallow, or the grain is too fine, it won't drain properly after rains like those that soaked Beijing this week.

"Thanks to the sand, we could go on with the playing without delay," said Angelo Sequeo, beach volleyball coordinator for the FIVB. "When the players are psychologically comfortable with the sand, they can dive and jump without any problems."

The federation looks for a consistency and depth that gives way when athletes try to jump or run, making it harder for them to play the power game and, ideally, allowing for longer volleys and exciting points.

"It makes for a better game of volleyball," said Sinjin Smith, a former Olympian who is now an FIVB official. "There are more volleys - and what's the name of the game? 'Volley-ball' - and you struggle to put the ball away."

Actually, that's just half of the name.

Although the sport had its origins on the California coast, you don't need a beach to play beach volleyball anymore. Many international tournaments are held far from the water, with specially selected sand that must meet the federation's painfully precise specifications.

In his lab at Hutcheson Sand and Mixes, about 100 miles north of Toronto, Knapton runs it through a sifter to make sure it's the right mixture of coarse and fine granules, with at least 80 percent of the grains from 0.5-1 mm in diameter, no more than 6 percent between 1-2 mm, and so on.

And don't even think about gravel (over 2 mm) or silt (under 0.05 mm).

Once the source had been picked, Knapton settled on a mixture of two sands - one gold, one more white - mining it from separate pits and combining it for the right color and consistency. It was blended and washed, a process that took two weeks.

Loaded onto a specially washed cargo ship - it had to be sent back three times so it wouldn't contaminate the sand - the 17,000 tons of sand spent nine days at sea traveling to the port of Tianjin. About 1,100 trucks carried it on the last leg to Beijing at night, to avoid the traffic.

Once at the venue, a conveyor belt brought the sand to laborers who used shovels and wheelbarrows to spread it over the two competition courts, seven practice courts and two spectators' courts. All of the surfaces had to be the same, so the players could rely on the consistency.

"That's what we've tried to do," Knapton said. "Create the perfect surface, time and time again,"

Understanding the sand is as important for some players as knowing the wind direction or whether they need sunglasses. Before she plays, Walsh grabs a handful and lets it run through her fingers.

Others don't spend too much time thinking about it.

"I don't really know what makes it good," American Sean Rosenthal said. "But I know it when I'm playing on it."