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At least this Russia-Georgia conflict had a civil ending

BEIJING -- There was no blood in the water when two nations at war faced each other Wednesday, but there was sunscreen in the sand.

One of the most famous competitions in Olympic history is the 1956 Soviet Union-Hungary "Blood in the Water" water polo match, which came just after the Soviets sent in tanks to crack down on a Hungarian uprising. The emotions spilled into the pool, where the match turned so violent blood colored the water and the competition had to be stopped.

And then there was Wednesday's Russia-Georgia matchup …

If it lacked the animosity -- to say nothing of the violence -- of the water polo match, perhaps it was because this venue was the beach volleyball pit. And the competitors wore sunscreen, sunglasses and bikinis. And tanned, long-haired cheerleaders strutted in the sand. And the sound system blared such classic Eastern European folk tunes as "La Bamba," "Highway to Hell" and the "Ghostbusters" theme.

Plus, the Georgian beach volleyball team isn't actually from, you know, Georgia.

"There were no politics in this game today because we weren't playing a match against Georgia because those girls aren't Georgians; they are Brazilians," Russia's Alexandra Shiryaeva said after she and Natalia Uryadova lost in three sets to Georgia's Cristine Santanna and Andrezza Chagas. "Yes, we felt for the people in our country, but it is not anything political."

Given that the current conflict between the two countries is due in large part to disputes over who is Russian and who is Georgian -- and which country should hold power over them -- it was only fitting that the postmatch news conference also turned into a fierce debate about who is Georgian.

"I really felt like we were representing the people of Georgia," Santana said. "I don't want to get political because this is Olympic Games, but down in my heart, I wanted to beat Russia, for sure."

"We were playing against the Brazilian team," Uryadova insisted. "If they are Georgian, they certainly would be influenced [by the conflict], but in fact they are not."

The Russians made a good point. Santanna and Chagas are among the many athletes competing under increasingly liberal dual-citizenship rules. They were born and raised and currently live in Brazil. They have been to Georgia only twice in their lives, while obtaining citizenship. Neither speaks the language, although Santanna says she knows the national anthem. Still, it's clear Santanna takes her dual citizenship seriously, as she responded angrily when the Russians challenged her legitimacy.

"I have double citizenship. I feel I am Georgian," she said. "I have a Georgian passport and a Brazilian passport, and we fought the last two years to be here. It was very hard and there was a lot of pressure, so I am very proud today, not only because it was against Russia, but because we played hard out there and we won this match and we're still in the competition."

So there.

"It's very good for Georgia to win and advance to the next round," Georgian volleyball federation president Levan Akhvlediani said. "And it's very good for the Russians to go home."

Georgia offered Santanna and Chagas citizenship in large part because President Mikheil Saakashvili's wife, Sandra E. Roelofs, is a former volleyball player and wanted to build up the national team. And they readily accepted because they couldn't make the very strong Brazilian team.

"We were really not good players in Brazil," Santanna said. "But we grew as players in Georgia."

They even were given Georgian names, Saka (Santanna) and Rtvelo (Chagas), which they wear on the backs of their sports bra tops and which, when combined, spell "Georgia" in the national language. Akhvlediani said it made the names easy to remember.

It's hard to get too worked up about a sporting competition when KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (I Like It)" is playing on the loudspeakers, but there is a serious story behind all this.

Tensions between Georgia, a former Soviet state, and Russia over a breakaway region erupted Friday about the same time the countries' athletes marched into the Bird's Nest for the Opening Ceremony. On Thursday, Georgia had taken military action against separatist fighters in South Ossetia, an autonomous region in which many people support independence or reunification with Russia. On Friday and the ensuing days, Russia sent in troops and shelled several cities in Georgia, killing thousands and leaving many more homeless.

When Santanna and Chagas returned to the Olympic Village from their first match Sunday, they found the rest of the Georgian team gathered, many in tears and many packing their bags to return home. Concerned about family and friends, the team was planning to withdraw from the Olympics. In the end, the team stayed. Flights back to Georgia were not considered safe; the Georgian president requested the athletes continue competing; and, Santanna said, "A lot of the players wanted to stay here. They said, 'Let's fight here.'"

Santanna said she and Chagas received many messages from Georgians before their match that said: You better beat Russia. We want you to be there. She added, "We felt we had to give extra for them. I said I would give my strength to them and fight here as they fight there."

Chagas and Santanna wore red tops with white bikini bottoms for the match. Uryadova and Shiryaeva wore white tops and blue bikini bottoms. There was only one flag of either country visible in the stands during the match, and that was a Russian banner displayed by an ex-Siberian currently living in Beijing, where he teaches English. A Russian teaching English in China? Is this the new world order or what?

"More than that, I teach Korean students," Andrey Sviridov said. "Can you believe it? A Russian teaching English in China to Koreans."

Sviridov said he didn't see the match as a war.

"I personally am not thinking about what is going on right now between Russia and Georgia; I don't want politics to interfere with sports," Sviridov said. "[The conflict] has nothing to do with sports. Sports are for regular people, like you and me. Ordinary people, like you and me, are dying right now because of the ambitions of politicians. It's disgusting."

Santanna said the pressure of the situation made her nervous in the first set, which Russia easily won 21-10, although Chagas felt otherwise, saying she didn't feel the weight of the country on her back. "I felt like all Georgia was cheering for us," she said through an interpreter. "I felt like even if we didn't win, we would show that we were fighters and trying to represent Georgia as best we could."

The two turned it around in the second set, in which the lead changed with virtually every point and the Georgians repeatedly stayed alive with diving volleys in the draining heat and humidity. They staved off a potential match point to win the second set 22-20, then won the third 15-12 even though Santanna was so overcome by the intense heat that she required a medical timeout. "I felt like throwing up," she said. "I told Andrezza, 'I know we have the lead, but I'm about to pass out.'"

Afterward, Santanna said that although she was angered when the Russians challenged her citizenship, she went out of her way to mend fences.

"I have something I want to say," she said near the end of the news conference. "I want to compliment [the Russians] because we never played them before. I know they are a good team. We had a good match. We fought hard; we did and they did. I do not want this to be a war between us. We respect them as players."

The Russians likewise later apologized to the Georgians (or Brazilians) if they came off as poor sports at the news conference and asked them to sign their programs.

Ah, if only life were so simple away from the sand and the sunscreen.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.