Bikini-clad cheer squads have made beach volleyball a focal point of the Asian Games with Chinese fans flocking to the sand to watch the action both on and off court. But the scantily-clothed "beach babes" are feeling the pressure of a fast changing society were once puritanical communist morality has quickly given way to the pursuits of the free market.
"When people see the appearance of our rally squad, there is really a lot of pressure on us, not only among family and friends, but in society there is this negative view," the raven-haired Yi Yiqing told journalists. "But what we are actually doing is cheering on Team China, so a lot of people who actually see us, appreciate what we are doing."
Yi is a member of the Guangzhou Star Cheerleaders, a group of eight girls that professionally perform at basketball games and other events, but who have volunteered their daily performances here for the betterment of the Asiad. On Tuesday night, they opened with a long pre-gold medal match routine wearing sailor hats and candy-cane bikinis as the near capacity crowd cheered to the bump and grind of an uptempo hip-hop tune.
During breaks in the action, the team danced as athletes Xue Chen and Zhang Xi dispatched their Chinese compatriots Yue Yuan and Huang Ying to win the women's title. By the end of the evening the girls were in cowboy hats again along with skimpy sky-blue bikinis strutting their stuff to a country tune. As the team normally performs in regular cheerleader attire, for many of this was the first time performing in bikinis, an act that took time to get used to.
"As I performed at the Beijing Olympics, dancing (in bikinis) has not been embarrassing for me as it has been for some of the other beach babes. I am more confident so they follow my lead," squad leader Yang Mengjia said. And what about the chilly November night air? "Of course we are cold, but we are also warm-hearted, so this keeps everyone warm," Yang, her hair dyed a fashionable brunette, said. "To tell you the truth, the rally girls are hot, I prefer the rally girls more than the game," said Chen Genjian, 31, a worker in nearby Panyu who came with two of his buddies to watch China win the gold medal.
Other fans had similar views, including many women who said they found the cheerleaders attractive and "healthy." "Beach volleyball is a very colourful sport, the athletes are strong and beautiful," said Gu Yali, a middle-aged woman who was watching the match with her husband and child. "The rally girls are also hot, they have nice skin and they are all in very good health." After appearing at Chinese professional basketball matches about a decade ago, cheerleading in China has spread to numerous sports and is a fixture here at nearly all Asian Games events -- with few detractors.
"You can't say that this is sexist," said Shao Mei, a media relations official at the beach volleyball venue told AFP. "The rally girls are athletic and are very beautiful. They are very healthy. This is healthy not sexist," she said.