Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network)-
Volleyball, invented in 1895 by YMCA instructor William G. Morgan, was initially called mintonette and was first developed to blend the elements of basketball, baseball, tennis, and handball. It was first introduced to the Olympics in 1964 for both men and women.
Since 1996 a new discipline has been brought to the table in Olympic volleyball. Adding to the indoor game is the outdoor one contested on the sand. Beach volleyball has grown in popularity, thanks mostly to the open air, raucous fans and even sex appeal.
"You have great athletes and everybody looks good," USA Beach Volleyball team member Misty May said. "I think the play is exciting. You have two people covering the same amount of court as indoor, where you have six."
The Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) is the international governing body for the sport. There are four major events on the international volleyball calendar. They are the Olympics (indoor and beach), World Championships (indoor and beach), World Cup (indoor only), World League (men indoor) and World Grand Prix (women indoor). All events are run every four years with the exceptions of the World League/Grand Prix, which are every year, and the World Championships, which are held every two years.
For the indoor game, the matches are played in the best of five sets format. The first four sets are played to 25 points, with the final set being played to 15 points. A team must win a set by two points. There will be 12 men's and 12 women's teams divided into two groups, A and B. Twelve players are on each team.
|Tom Hoff and the American men have improved their international stature and are currently ranked sixth in the world. |
There will be five preliminary round matches followed by quarterfinals, semifinals and the bronze and gold medal games. The competition starts August 14 with the women playing and ends August 29 with the men's gold medal match. The women and men will take the court on alternating days.
In the women's play, group A has Greece, Korea, Japan, Brazil, Italy and Kenya. The United States is in group B along with China, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Germany and Russia. In the men's competition group A consists of Tunisia, Argentina, Serbia-Montenegro, Poland, France and Greece. The U.S. is in group B along with Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and Australia.
The matches will take place at the Peace and Friendship Stadium at the Coastal Zone Olympic Complex, which has a total capacity of 14,000 seats.
The men's competition has been wide open with different champions in each of the last three Olympics. In 2000, Yugoslavia was victorious. The Netherlands captured the gold medal in 1996 and in 1992 Brazil finished on top. Before that the United States won the gold medal in both 1984 and 1988.
Since then though it's been a fall from grace for the Americans. After finishing with the bronze medal in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the U.S. fell to a ninth-place finish in 1996 in Atlanta and came in 11th in 2000.
"I don't think anyone's choosing us to be the gold medal favorite," USA team member and 2000 Olympian Tom Hoff said. "We're going to have to work extremely hard to get into the medal round and then to hopefully win a gold medal."
The American men have since improved their international stature and are currently ranked sixth in the world, but skill-wise are still far behind the top teams of Brazil and Italy, who are 1-2 in the world.
"They create a tremendous amount of pressure when you play them as a team, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint," USA team member and two-time Olympian Lloy Ball said. "They limit themselves to mistakes and make you feel like you haven't been training that well. When you're playing them you start to make mistakes you haven't made before. They run an extremely fast offense and they have really good servers,"
For the U.S. to be successful they'll have to improve on their power serving, which has become a big part of the game, and limit their mistakes. Their coach, Doug Beal knows about success. He guided the team to its first gold medal in 1984 in Los Angeles and last year the team captured the gold medal at the NORCECA Zone Championships in September. Team USA then won the NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in January and Beal is now on his way to a fourth Olympics.
Ball, 32, the team captain, returns to the international stage following a big decision in his life, as he rejoined the team in 2002.
"I was obviously burned out after 2000. I had need surgery. I just needed time away," Ball noted. "Playing and training 12 months a year is tolling for anyone, especially to someone who has had that time around the 30 mark has passed."
For the USA women, they have never won a gold medal at the Olympics, finishing with the silver in 1984 and with a bronze in 1992. That's because the competition has been dominated by Cuba, which has won the last three Olympics.
Toshi Yoshida took over as head coach of the women's national team in November 2000, replacing Mick Haley, who returned to collegiate coaching after the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
"He just has a wonderful system," USA team member Stacy Sykora said about Yoshida. "He really trains us hard every single day and gives us that confidence that when we go out on the court we know that we have trained for 24 hours a day and have confidence in his techniques and skills."
The U.S. women finished fourth in the 2000 Olympics, but could find themselves finally with a chance for at least a silver this time around. They are ranked second internationally behind China and have pressured the Chinese into possibly thinking 2004 could be history in the making for the United States.
In the men's competition, Brazil and Italy have been known as powerhouses and 2004 is no exception. Led by captain Giovane Gavio, Brazil has been a dominant in the volleyball for over 50 years. They finished 2003 ranked second internationally, having won both the World League in Spain and the World Cup in Japan.
Italy, led by 2003 European Champions MVP Andrea Sartoretti, will try to break its Olympic jinx of never winning a gold medal.
Serbia & Montenegro, France and Russia are also considered strong competitors. The Soviet Union won three gold medals (1964, 1968, 1980).
In the women's competition, China, Brazil, Italy and Russia are all considered strong squads. Cuba, which has been considered a dominant team, slipped to sixth in the international rankings at the beginning of this year. Yet, they remain a threat. The Soviet Union won the gold medal four times.
The beach volleyball matches are played in a best-of-three sets format using a rally point system. The first two sets are played to 21 points with a possible tiebreaker set being played to 15 points. A team must win by two points in each set. The game can be grueling, especially near Athens, where temperatures could easily rise to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The games will be staged at the Olympic Beach Volleyball Centre, which has a capacity of approximately 10,000 and is part of the Faliro Coastal Zone Olympic Complex. Some of the matches will take place under the lights for the first time in Olympic history.
Each team consists of two men or women on the court measuring 16x8 meters.
Each country is entitled to have a maximum of two teams in both the men's and women's competition, but Greece is allowed to field three teams in both genders since they are the host country. Each team is seeded according to an international ranking and the squads will play preliminary round matches, followed by quarterfinals, semifinals and the bronze and finally gold medal match.
The women's field is especially strong for the United States as the duo of Kerri Walsh and May are ranked No. 1 in the world, while Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs are No. 4.
Walsh and May were both 2000 Olympians, but on different teams until they joined forces in 2001 and since then they've been the most dominant duo on the pro beach volleyball tour. They had an overall 90-match winning streak broken in early June. The duo had also won 15 tournaments in a row. However, the team may not be intact for the Olympics as May is sidelined with an abdominal strain, leaving her availability for the Summer Games in doubt.
The U.S. women have not medaled at the Olympics yet. The top finish was a fourth-place showing by Barbra Fontana and Linda Hanley in 1996. Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson Jordan, vying for a spot in this year's Games, were fifth in 2000 along with McPeak and May.
There is a possibility now that Johnson Jordan or Davis could join Walsh if May cannot play. Walsh may also choose Nancy Mason or Carrie Busch as a possible replacement.
The American men have fared much better winning the gold medal both times. In 1996 Karch Kiraly teamed with Kent Steffes to win top honors, while four years ago it was the team of Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana that came out on top. This time, Blanton has combined with Jeff Nygaard, but they are not even in the top five in the international rankings.
In women's competition, a pair of Brazilian teams are threats to win gold. The duo of Ana Paula Connelly and Sandra Pires, along with the team of Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede. Bede and Behar won the silver medal in 2000, while Pires teamed with Adrian Samuel to win the bronze in Sydney. Pires also won the gold medal in 1996.
Just like the women's division, Brazil looks especially strong in men's play with the teams of Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos, and Benjamin Insfran and Marcio Araujo. The Swiss team of Patrick Heuscher and Stefan Kobel are also likely to receive a top billing in Athens.
By Eric Gold, Olympic Contributing Editor