By Steve Keating

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - They have played for Olympic gold in parks, next to car parks and on royal parade grounds, but at the Rio Games beach volleyball will actually be played -- on a beach.

Only once since the sport became part of the Olympic program in 1996 has beach volleyball, the most hedonistic of Olympic events, been staged on a genuine stretch of sand shared by sun worshippers and surfers.

With the exception of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when the iconic Bondi Beach was the venue, beach volleyball has been contested on man-made surfaces to a backdrop of manufactured beach vibe.

Beach volleyball's Olympic debut came in an Atlanta suburb at Clayton County Park, while the Faliro Olympic Beach Volleyball Center used for the 2004 Athens Games popped up beside a car park.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic venue at Chaoyang Park was built on top of an old industrial complex while the 2012 Olympics site was constructed on Horse Guards Parade in the heart of London.

The United States, having invented the game, can claim to be the home of beach volleyball, but its soul lives in Brazil, and Copacabana Beach the altar where they come to worship.

The stretch of white sand watched over by the statue of Christ the Redeemer is probably the most famous beach in the world, making Copacabana the quintessential venue for the sport's showcase event.

Kerri Walsh Jennings has topped the podium at the last three Olympics but this will be the first time the American has gone for gold on an actual beach.

"Playing in Copa is amazing. The energy is electric and it absolutely does elevate play," said Walsh Jennings. "It is going to be amazing to play in front of such crazy, passionate fans. It is something we all relish."

While Walsh Jennings and new playing partner April Ross will be focusing on the serious business in Rio, Copacabana is braced for an Olympic beach party, with the action starting early in the day and running late into the evening, with several matches scheduled for a midnight start.

INCREDIBLE ATMOSPHERE

With the Samba and pounding surf providing a sunny soundtrack, beach volleyball is one of the hottest tickets in Rio.

"Brazil has so much passion for the game. Really it is going to be an incredible atmosphere down there, said Lauren Fendrick, who will partner Brooke Sweat in the other U.S. women's entry. "The energy, I think, is going to take level of play beyond what we have seen anywhere in the world up to this point."

The U.S. have dominated on Olympic sand, winning three of the five golds that have been contested in both the men's and women's competitions.

Ranked third in the world, 37-year-old Walsh Jennings, nicknamed "Six Feet of Sunshine", and Ross will be among the favorites in Rio, along with the two Brazilian entries ahead of them.

Should Walsh Jennings get to the top of the podium again, she would emulate long-jumper Carl Lewis and discus thrower Al Oerter as the only athletes to have won four consecutive Olympic golds in the same individual event.

"Our goal is to play our best volleyball here in Rio, every single match come out and show up and be at our best," said Walsh Jennings, down-playing her chances of joining a very elite club. "We really don't think about the result. We just know how we want to play."

(Reporting by Steve Keating,; Editing by Neville Dalton)