Blue Skies for Beijing Beach Volleyball

China's Yuan Tue (L) and Malaysia's Beh Shun Thing test the new Olympic beach volleyball facility in Beijing's Chaoyang Park.<br><strong>Photo: Teh Eng Koon</strong>

Temperatures soared in Beijing on Monday as bikini-clad athletes tested the city's new beach--the venue for next year's Olympic beach volleyball tournament--under surprisingly blue skies.??

Spectators were sparse but vocal during the morning session as athletes from a dozen countries toiled under the hot sun in the Beach Volleyball Women's Challenger invitation tournament.??

"I didn't expect it to be so exciting," said Wang Weiguo, a machine operator in eastern Beijing who came with his five-year-old son. Both had towels draped over their heads.??

"These women are real athletes," he said.??

After a storm of bad publicity following weeks of thick smog in one of the world's most polluted cities, competitors were delighted with the relatively clean air that has emerged in recent days.??

"We heard about pollution fears but looking at the sky today and enjoying this weather, we don't see any problem. It's fantastic," Canadian captain Anouk Boileau said, who also gave a rousing endorsement of the venue.??

About 17,000 tons of fine-grained sand costing around one million dollars was shipped into Chaoyang Park in eastern Beijing where the 12,000-seat stadium was purpose built for the 2008 Olympics.??

"This is good sand and a great stadium," said Boileau, despite pairing with Marie-Christine Mondor for a preliminary round defeat to China's Sun Bing and Wei Zhaochen.??

"The venue is amazing. It is big enough to be an Olympic venue yet designed so that it is intimate too. The spectators are close and that makes it very special," she said.??

Malaysian Beh Shun Thing, who with Luk Teck Hua opened her account in the tournament with a win over another Chinese pairing, Yue Yuan and Zhang Wenwen, was equally positive.??

"This is the most beautiful stadium we have ever seen. The Olympics are going to be excellent," she said.??

Nine Chinese teams are in the 24-team draw alongside sides from the United States, Canada, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil, Switzerland, Sweden, Estonia, Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong.??

Matches in the challenger tournament take place in the morning and the evening to spare the athletes Beijing's August mid-day heat, scheduling that will be followed during the 2008 Games.??

The competition is one of 42 test events planned for Beijing Olympic venues to assess preparations for the August 8-24 Games next year.??

Rowing and hockey competitions have been held this week and a total of 26 are scheduled before the end of the year.

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