By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Spectators arriving at the Olympic beach volleyball venue in London are confronted with a larger-than-life statue of Brazilian player Emanuel Rego, described on the pedestal as a hero of the sport.
Emanuel won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and bronze in Beijing in 2008 with ex-team mate Ricardo Santos. Now playing with another man, Alison Cerutti, Emanuel is competing in his fifth consecutive Olympics.
At 39, the veteran Brazilian is still at the top of his game. He and Alison are the reigning world champions and favorites to win gold in London.
While the Brazilian's record is exceptional, his longevity is not.
One of the striking aspects of the line-up of players competing at the London Games is that many of the best among them are in their mid- to late-30s, an age where athletes in many other sports would be considered over the hill.
Emanuel's former partner, Ricardo, is a case in point. At 37, he is competing in his fourth Games. He won silver in Sydney in 2000 with Ze Marco de Melo before winning medals with Emanuel in Athens and Beijing. And with his third Olympic team mate, Pedro Cunha, he is yet again a strong contender for a medal.
"That's a direct attribute of the sand. We're playing on sand, it's a very forgiving medium," said American Todd Rogers, 38, gold medalist in Beijing with team mate Phil Dalhausser. The pair competed in London but have been knocked out.
While beach volleyball requires a high level of fitness for running, jumping and diving in the sand, it does not damage the joints or the bone structure as sports played on hard surfaces do, Rogers said.
RIDE YOUR EMOTIONS
Even more important though, according to Rogers, Emanuel and other players interviewed by Reuters, is that contrary to what appearances might suggest, beach volleyball is a mental game in which maturity and experience can trump youth and strength.
"We need to think every time, for every point, every serve, change the strategy, because of the wind, the sand, soft or not, everything is changing all the time," said Emanuel.
A sport played in pairs, beach volleyball requires not just tactical nous but also emotional intelligence to manage the intense relationship that develops within a team.
"It's the most challenging thing of the game, the relationship," said Natalie Cook, 37, the first Australian woman athlete in any sport to compete in five Olympics. She won bronze in Atlanta in 1996 and gold in Sydney in 2000.
"We can all dig, set and spike, we can all serve, we can all dive around and block, but (you have) to work on the intricacies of an intimate relationship where you know what each other thinks and you don't have to say anything," she said.
"As you get older you learn to understand your emotions. You learn how to ride them when they're good and when they're bad pull them back up."
Cook, Rogers and Emanuel have all enjoyed one other key advantage that younger players will not: they are the first generation of beach volleyball Olympians.
The sport that sprang into life on the beaches of California almost a century ago made its Olympic debut in Atlanta.
In the first four Games where it was played, the medals tables were dominated by three countries with vibrant beach cultures and an established tradition of playing by the seaside: the United States, Brazil and Australia.
Those nations remain the only three to have won Olympic gold in beach volleyball, but as the years have gone by and successive Games have raised awareness of the sport, young challengers have sprung up in almost every corner of the globe.
In the women's game, a Chinese pair are threatening the duopoly of Brazil and the United States while a host of up-and-coming European teams are increasingly successful. In the men's game, teams from a variety of countries including the Netherlands, Latvia and Poland are now genuine contenders.
"In Atlanta Olympics there were probably six teams you thought were good, and then the others, 'oh well, this will be easy'," said Cook, who played at the highest level on the world tour for close to 20 years.
"Now, put your helmet on, put your vest on. The talent, the competitors are fierce. The sport is getting tougher and stronger every day," Cook told reporters after she and new partner Tamsin Hinchley were knocked out of the 2012 Games.
So is the era of extra-long careers drawing to a close? Cook certainly thought so.
"You'll never see another five-time Olympian in beach volleyball. I would put my house on it. You might see Emanuel go to six for (the 2016 Games in) Rio. He's a Federer. But I don't think you'll see another female do five," she said.
Emanuel will be 43 when Rio hosts the Games. Asked whether he would try to compete there, he seemed skeptical but not quite prepared to rule it out.
"I don't know. I think next year will be my big decision. I think it's too long. We'll see. The athlete's life is always challenges. Maybe this will be one more," he said with a laugh.
But Emanuel was sure that by the time the Olympics came to the beaches of Rio, a new generation would have taken over the sport, not only from new countries but also from traditional powerhouses such as Brazil and the United States.
"This will be a new start for sure. Old players my age are thinking about not going to Rio and the young players, Alison, Pedro Cunha, they are coming," he said.
"They will be playing better than us in four years."
Cunha, who at 29 forms a successful tandem with the 37-year-old Ricardo, had his own view on the matter.
"This is a very young sport. It's the fifth Olympics only. I think experience is still very important. In future, in the next Olympics, youth is going to be more important than experience, like in the other sports," he said.
"I really hope this is the last Olympics of the old guys. I don't want them anymore, they've won a lot. I want everything for me now," he said with a cheeky twinkle in his eye.
(Editing by Alison Williams)