LONDON — As the U.S. women's beach volleyball team answered question after question at its Wednesday press conference, Phil Dalhausser was finally asked if the attention annoys their male counterparts.
"I'm OK with this. They're way prettier than us," he said, speaking for the first time in a dozen minutes.
"Wait until you see their uniforms, though," cracked Misty May-Treanor.
Unless the men adopt something from the "Magic Mike" collection as their Olympic uniform, the women rule the sand in the Summer Games. The late-night exploits of May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh on U.S. television during the Beijing Games turned them and their sport into bikini-clad icons — both athletically and sexually.
"I think it's the sweat, sand, rolling around," May-Treanor said, with a laugh. "Our sport is very dynamic."
For beach volleyball Olympians, that allure is a balancing act. Their exposing uniforms are a hook for attention, but can overshadow their competitive accomplishments.
"It's a little bit shocking for people. That draws them in. Once they see the athleticism of the sport, they're hooked on it," said beach volleyball competitor April Ross.
The bikini thing is an accepted (and embraced) facet of the sport in the U.S. May-Treanor said questions about their kit had subsided back in the states.
"People used to bring it up all the time. Then it kinda stopped," said May-Treanor.
"I think people realize the hard work and the athleticism of the sport. They're used to it. Now, it's back in [the conversation] because of the shorts issue here."
That's thanks to the International Volleyball Federation's ruling that women can wear shorts and sleeved tops during the event for "religious and cultural requirements"; and because some Londoners find the sport -- to more-than-appropriately use the local dialect for a moment -- "rather cheeky."
The rule, in effect for the London Games, permits "shorts of a maximum length of [1.18 inches] above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops."
It's an option the U.S. women don't expect to utilize. "We're not uncomfortable in our bikinis. When you grow up in Southern California, that's what you wear in the summertime. This is the most comfortable thing for us to wear," said Jennifer Kessy of the U.S.
[ Related: Beach volleyball players might cover up in London ]
"We wouldn't opt to play in shorts because it's not comfortable. You get sand everywhere."
But Kessy couldn't be happier that the option is there, because it's another step towards global participation in her sport.
"We want women of all different religions to play our sport. To not be able to play because of the attire is not OK for us. So the fact that they can wear more modest gear is something great," she said.
Ross, her partner on the sand, agreed. "It's a big issue for Jenn and I. We consider ourselves feminist. We're all for women playing sports, and means so much to girls growing up."
Which is to say that beach volleyball is empowering. It teaches discipline and focus. The fitness necessary to excel in the sport is considerable. For the U.S. team, the conversations about how they look are inseparable from the reasons they look that way.
"We welcome it because we take pride. All the word we put in must be paying off. If there's so much interest in what we're wearing, it must be [because], 'Yeah, we've got some awesome bodies,'" said May-Treanor.
[ Photos: Beach volleyball action ]
This is something the locals have, ahem, noticed.
A British journalist asked May-Treanor about the "wink wink, nudge nudge" approach to beach volleyball amongst U.K. fans, who make lurid comments on social media (and have a laugh about Prince Harry's affinity for the sport).
Is that an element of sexism?
"I don't really think about it. If they want to arm-wrestle, I'll get clothed and we can go lift weights," said May-Treanor.
"It's just funny. People look at our sport that way, and yet you have gymnasts that are 14 or 15, and the camera angles sometimes on these events … and they're in leotards. You have divers in Speedos. So, to single our sport out because we dive in [bikinis] … look, I did track. I had to run in a little singlet top."
May-Treanor, the two-time gold medalist who is competing on her final Olympics, appreciates the notoriety their gear receives, and hopes many can look beyond it.
"We're only in our uniforms to play, and then we put sweats on. It's functional," she said. "There's a lot of hard work that goes into what we do. There's no airbrushing here."
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