Published: Feb 24, 1:49p ET
Updated: Feb 24, 1:51p ET

British beach volleyball men face cash shortage in Olympic campaign

LONDON (AP) -- Think beach volleyball, and Britain is probably not the first place that springs to mind.

Gregg Weaver (left) and Jody Gooding have a British Olympic spot to fight for, but might not have enough money to make it through the season.
Gregg Weaver (left) and Jody Gooding have a British Olympic spot to fight for, but might not have enough money to make it through the season.

Most people conjure up images of tanned, toned bodies diving and tumbling on the beaches of Brazil or California.

But wait -- it's not all about sand, sun and sex appeal.

With beach volleyball taking center stage this summer in the historic center of London, a group of determined but cash-strapped British men are struggling to keep their dream alive of competing in their home Olympics.

With their U.K. funding taken away, the players are scrounging for money, searching for sponsors and training abroad on their own as they prepare for the final months of qualifying tournaments to secure that coveted Olympic spot and compete in the world's biggest event in front of their own fans.

British men have never competed in beach volleyball at the Olympics, but they've been granted a host nation qualifying spot for the London Games. Two pairs are battling for the single berth, but logistical and financial challenges stand in their way.

"I'm kind of at the stage where I might have to say if we don't get the money, we're going to have to call it a day because I don't have any cash to carry on," said 31-year-old Jody Gooding, who has been training for the Olympics for seven years.

Gooding figures that he and partner Gregg Weaver are about 40,000 pounds ($63,000) short of what they need to get through the pre-Olympic season.

"At the moment, I've probably got enough to go on for another two or three weeks," Gooding said in a telephone interview from Hermosa Beach, Calif., where he is based during the winter. "We're trying to desperately, desperately raise money. I haven't really begged yet."

According to the old saying, competing in the Olympics is not about the winning, it's about the taking part. But it's also about the money, or lack of it, to get there in the first place.

Gooding has sent out pitches to sponsors looking for backing, but with little success.

"People think we're looking for deals in six figures, but that's not the case," he said. "Even 2,000 pounds ($3,000) -- that's my flight to Brazil and my flight to Shanghai."

Gooding scrapes by with a few thousand dollars from a deal with a nutritional company, a monthly donation from an uncle and some prize money left over from last year. Another British player, Robin Miedzybrodzki, began working last year as a civil engineer for National Rail to raise money for his Olympic bid.

Britain's Olympic runners, swimmers, cyclists, sailors and other athletes benefit from multi-million-pound (dollar) backing from U.K. Sport, the body which distributes sports funding. Those sports are at the top of the food chain because they're more established and expected to win medals.

Rowing is getting 27 million pounds ($42 million) for the London Games buildup, cycling 26 million ($40 million), swimming and track and field 25 million ($39 million) each, and sailing 22 million ($35 million).

In late 2009, facing a budget shortfall and hit hard by the economic crisis, U.K. Sport slashed some of its funding. The result: the men's beach volleyball program and women's indoor team lost all of their funding, while 2.2 million pounds ($3.5 million) was left for the women's beach and men's indoor teams.

"They made a business decision," Gooding said. "I can understand it. The women were higher ranked than the men, and as the Olympics is all about getting medals, they felt they should invest just in the women's program."

A British women's team qualified for beach volleyball when the sport made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. But since then, no British teams have qualified. Gooding and Weaver are competing against rival British pair John Garcia Thompson and Steve Grotowski for the London spot.

"It's a huge challenge. I take my hat off to every player who's getting after this challenge," Britain's volleyball performance director Kenny Barton said. "They have sacrificed everything. The athletes have basically had to give up four years and get after it with very little funding."

Beach volleyball will be one of the top attractions during the London Games, played at a temporary venue set up in Horse Guards Parade, a stone's throw from 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

For a time, it seemed Britain might not have any shot at the Olympics because the players weren't ranked high enough to qualify. But, last year, the British Olympic Association awarded host nation qualification places for the beach and indoor volleyball teams.

For Gooding, who grew up in rugby-mad Gloucester in western England, indoor volleyball was his sport until he decided to switch to beach. After London was awarded the Olympics in 2005, he and Weaver set out to qualify.

A year later, beach volleyball got full funding and the pair trained at the national sports center in Bath, with coaching, conditioning and flights to competition all paid for.

"It was perfect," Gooding said.

When their funding was dropped in 2009, the players decided to keep going. Gooding and a new partner, Luke Sheaf, spent 10 weeks in Rio de Janeiro, where the training and coaching was cheaper.

Last year, Gooding joined up again with Weaver, who is married to an American and living in Los Angeles. They set up their winter training in Hermosa Beach, a beach volleyball mecca. Gooding, who stays at a friend's apartment and pays him rent, has a 90-day U.S. visa that he has to renew by leaving the country.

Their fight for the Olympic spot will come down to eight more tournaments this season, starting in Brazil in April and ending in Rome on June 17, barely a month before the opening of the Olympics on July 27. The British team with the best 12 results over their last 22 tournaments should make it.

Gooding's wife, Denise Johns, is also competing for an Olympic berth with partner Lucy Boulton.

The women are getting plenty of commercial attention. As Gooding spoke on the phone from California, his wife was in London at a photo shoot for a famous cosmetics company.

Gooding said his wife draws the line at certain promotional offers, turning down an approach from a British newspaper to pose with volleyballs strategically covering parts of her body. He said he's fed up with an obsession in the British media with women players' bikinis and bodies.

"It gets me angry," he said. "When it comes to beach volleyball, we're the only country in the world I know that focus on what the bloody girls wear."

While he scrambles to keep his Olympic campaign alive, Gooding is well aware that people may find it hard to feel too sorry for him. Staring out of his window with a view of the Hermosa Beach pier, he tries to keep things in perspective.

"I don't want to be this moaner, this kind of beggar," he said. "I understand we're in a financial crisis in the country, and I'm traveling the world living on a beach playing beach volleyball. There's a lot worse going on."

Hey, if things don't work out, there's always 2016 when the Olympics will be held in ... Rio de Janeiro.

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