Wed, Aug 22, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Player, model sets off beach volleyball craze in Japan

AFP , TOKYO

Japanese beach volleyball player Miwa Asao serves during a match in Singapore last May. Asao has a tough fight ahead of her to reach the Beijing Olympics, but she has already succeeded in sparking a craze for beach volleyball in Japan.

PHOTO: AFP

Pin-up girl Miwa Asao has a tough fight ahead of her if she is to reach the Beijing Olympics, but she has already succeeded in setting off a new craze in Japan for beach volleyball.

Nicknamed "the fairy on the beach," the 21-year-old has juggled her sporting ambitions with success as a fashion model and television personality.

More than 20,000 copies have been sold of her ?1,995 (US$17.40) book of racy photos -- with editions bearing her autograph selling for 10 times as much.

But Asao, who stands a well-built 172cm, insists she does not like being called a "fairy."

"A fairy has an immaculate image, but I get more suntanned than other people, so I always feel uncomfortable about it," Asao said of the nickname.

She said she also questions whether she can continue modeling as her volleyball career takes off.

"I often wonder if it's all right because I'm doing a lot of work with my weight and body to become more muscular," she said. "But I can't help it, because my ultimate goal is to keep winning in beach volleyball."

But there is no denying that her celebrity has boosted interest in the sport.

Asao caused a sensation when she played in the Tokyo Open in May. Crowds packed the free event, as well as a footbridge and an observation platform 150m away from the court.

Some 68 media companies covered the competition, which is usually a small event on Japan's sports calendar.

The organizers prohibited spectators from taking Asao's picture, leading to a skirmish when police hauled away one fan who snapped photos of Asao.

"I hadn't expected it to attract so many spectators. It will be more popular next year because of the Olympic qualification," Kazumasa Hariya of the Japan Beach Volleyball Federation said.

"We had only 300 seats this year. We must increase it to 1,000 next year," he said.

But Asao, teaming up with Takemi Nishibori, failed to live up to expectations by finishing third -- living up to their reputation as "the regular third placers."

"When we play against foreign teams, we have to hit hard, but when we play Japanese teams we need more technical tactics. That's why sometimes it's difficult against a Japanese team," Asao said.

But Asao has set her aims beyond just winning a domestic tournament.

"My goal is to take part in the Beijing Olympics," Asao said.

Hailing from Japan's western Mie Prefecture, Asao's manager hatched a plan to turn her into a volleyball star as well as television personality.

Asao started playing on the World Tour last season. She made it past the qualifying round for the first time this season in Espinho, Portugal.

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