The Swiss mountain resort of Gstaad is hosting the beach volleyball world championships for the first time.
The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) says the championships, held every two years, will be the most important test for the top teams ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The event, which begins on Tuesday and finishes on Sunday, is expected to draw more than 100,000 spectators to Gstaad to see the 48 men's and women's teams competing for $1 million (SFr1.2 million) in prize money.
"With a year to go before the Olympic Games, it's also an opportunity for the pairs to collect the maximum number of points in order to qualify for Beijing," said tournament director, Ruedi Kunz.
And even though none of the teams will win a direct ticket to Beijing, beach volleyball fans should expect to see the most successful in Gstaad competing in the Chinese capital.
According to the FIVB, the infrastructure in Gstaad rivals that of Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball stadium in Beijing. Both Gstaad and the Chinese facility have seating for 12,000 spectators.
This is the first time the world championships have been held in Switzerland since the event's inauguration in Brazil 20 years ago.
"We've been working on the organisation of this event for more than three years," Kunz said. "It's the eighth World Tour event we've held since 2000, and the experience gained helped us get the nod for the championships."
Because of the importance of the world championships, the Swiss volleyball federation Swiss Volley has managed to win over many sponsors as well as support from the state, the Gstaad authorities and tourist office, and the Swiss Olympic Organisation.
The organisers expect to sell around 100,000 tickets and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (swissinfo's parent company) will broadcast the event live around the world.
The images will even be rebroadcast by Indian, Thai, South Korean and Indonesian television stations. Beach volleyball has proven to be a popular televised sport since it was introduced as an Olympic discipline in Atlanta in 1996.
Around 190 athletes representing nearly 30 countries will be playing on the Swiss sand this week and many of the teams have a realistic shot at reaching the finals.
"I think ten teams will dominate the men's competition," Kunz said. "And one or two teams from Brazil, Germany, the United States or Spain will battle for gold. In my opinion, Patrick Heuscher and Sascha Heyer have the best chance among the Swiss of a strong finish."
Heuscher and Heyer have joined forces to see if they can cause an upset at the world championships. Heyer won the silver medal with Paul Laciga at the event in 2005 and Heuscher came away with Olympic bronze at Athens in 2004 while playing with Stefan Kobel.
Swiss fans will be watching closely to see how the Laciga brothers will perform now that they are back together. Paul will be joined by younger brother Martin in a bid to relive past glory.
Three times European champions, the brothers also won silver at the world championships in 1999 and came fifth at the Olympics in both Sydney and Athens.
The women's competition is also expected to be very open, with Chinese and Brazilian teams the favourites. Swiss hopes rest on the shoulders of the 43rd-ranked pair, Simone Kuhn and Lea Schwer – provided the latter returns to form after a recent injury.
swissinfo, based on a French article by Mathias Froidevaux
The World Championships take place in Gstaad from July 24-29, 2007.
96 teams will play 218 matches, competing for $1 million in prize money.
Gstaad has had to import 2,300 tons of sand for the games.
The temporary sports facility in the ski resort has seating for 12,000 spectators.
People first began playing the sport of beach volleyball in Santa Monica, California in the 1920s.
It began to appear in Europe about a decade later. But even though it has a relatively long history for a sport, beach volleyball only entered the media spotlight in the 1990s, becoming an Olympic discipline in Atlanta in 1996.
Derived from volleyball, the beach variety has two main differences: the surface on which it is played - sand - and the number of players a team can field - two.
Each match is the best of three sets of 25 points.
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