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.
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.
These skills paid off with the gold medal in Los Angeles. But, of course, the Russians were not there. It was only last November that the Americans had a chance to prove their real worth, outplaying the Soviets in an emotional 3-hour, 45-minute match to win the World Cup of volleyball in Japan.
The teams have met eight more times this year in exhibitions and major competitions. While the Americans won the USA Cup in August, the Russians took the gold in the Goodwill Games in Moscow during July. That turned their battle here into the deciding test.
After a slow start, the Americans took command with their quickness and enthusiasm. By the end, the difference between the teams was clear. The Russians looked tired and disorganized, their mustaches drooping and their large frames limping around the court. In contrast, the Americans would dive for balls and come up smiling, slapping hands in encouragement before each point.
``We played great defense,'' US coach Marv Dunphy said afterwards,'' and that made the difference.''
American captain Karch Kiraly was particularly impressive. The 25-year-old son of Hungarian refugees who settled in Santa Barbara, Kiraly controlled the match's tempo, reinforcing his reputation as the world's best player. Whenever the Americans needed a big point, he picked up his game. At match point, he first saved a ball, then hit three consecutive smashes.
``Kiraly adds something special,'' said Russian coach Gennady Parcchine. ``When he didn't play in a preliminary match, the Americans lacked some imagination.''
Hopefully, American sports fans will discover this budding star. With the ability to leap 41 inches in a single bound, his athletic qualities already are legendary in volleyball circles. He also boasts Robert Redford good looks, and a warm, articulate personality.
In a post-match interview, he said his father brought him up playing soccer and volleyball instead of baseball and football. At age 14, he chose volleyball because ``I was too thin to play soccer.'' A biochemistry graduate of UCLA (with a 3.55 grade-point average), he now plays the game full time, earning about $80,000 a year.
``It's not much compared to basketball players,'' he admitted, ``and that's one reason many kids don't grow up hoping to become volleyballers.''
He hopes the rivalry with the Russians will increase interest. The Goodwill Games match was broadcast on cable TV, and although Sunday's match was not televised, it still could be shown on tape. ``If we could just get one hour on a network,'' Kiraly said, ``it would be fantastic.''
Like Kiraly, almost the entire American team is from California and attended college in Los Angeles. ``There's not much depth behind us,'' Kiraly worries. ``The Russians have 6 million players. If we are to compete, we must develop more good young players.''
The next big test for the Americans will come at the 1988 Olympics. Perhaps another win over the Soviets there will convince the American public to take more notice of their champions. And perhaps Kiraly finally will receive the attention his superstar qualities merit.
''We must work hard and progress,'' Kiraly said. ''You can be sure the Russians won't be standing still.''