US volleyball team a smash hit in Paris
It combined all the ingredients of a historic sports event. For starters, take the nationalistic fervor when the superpowers meet for the world championship. Add generous portions of fast-speed action, diving saves, and leaping smashes. And as a proper finishing touch, at least from an American perspective, watch California beach boy quickness overcome swarthy Russian might.Skip to next paragraph
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This exciting show took place in the finals of the 11th World Men's Volleyball Championships. The US team won its first-ever title, beating the Soviets in four tough games, 12-15, 15-11, 15-8, 15-12.
There was only one problem: Few in the United States seemed to care.
``What is wrong with Americans?,'' asked Patricia Constantini, an official of the French Volleyball Federation. ``You have real superstars out on the court and yet only two American journalists are here to watch.''
At least the rest of the world noticed. Television transmitted the game everywhere from China to Brazil. More than 17,000 spectators packed Bercy Stadium, and the event led the sports pages in the French press.
``After soccer and basketball, volleyball is the world's third-most popular sport,'' Constantini asserts. ``More than 140 million people play.''
Ironically, the game was invented in the United States some 90 years ago. During World War I, American troops taught it to Europeans, who soon became the world pace setters, with communist teamwork eventually proving particularly potent. From 1949 until this year, a communist team won every world championship. And except for an occasional medal for Japan, Iron Curtain nations also dominated Olympic competition from the sport's introduction into the Games in 1964 through 1980.
In the 1970s, the USSR team, composed of officers in the Red Army, became particularly dominant. The Soviets combine military precision and power to overpower their foes. They don't just smash the ball, they punish it, sending many shots flying well into the stands.
Against that brute force, the Americans traditionally offered little resistance. In California, where volleyball is popular as a beach sport, the future world champions grew up playing the unusual format of two players per team instead of the regulation six players. No wonder the disorganized US team finished 19th in the 1978 world championships; in 1982, they came in only 13th.
Olympic hopes inspired the Americans to change tactics. Since 1981, the best beach players have been convinced to join the national team in return for sponsorship ``contracts'' amounting to about $30,000 a year, plus part-time jobs and/or school scholarships. In the three years before the 1984 Olympics, the team practiced hard -- 4,500 hours and 171 international matches -- recording every useful statistic on a computer.
Along with the hard work and fastidious training, the Americans developed a new style of game. They added extra physical punch to the flowing, rapid style pioneered by Oriental teams. And instead of concentrating on offense like the Soviets, they improved defensive tactics and learned to keep the hardest smashes in play.