One irony of Olympic competition over the past two decades has been that volleyball, a game invented in the United States, didn't produce a single American medal. That drought has ended now, with the US women picking up a silver Tuesday night, and the men assured of at least that much going into the championship game against Brazil Saturday.
Volleyball's roots go back to Holyoke, Mass. in 1895 and a YMCA physical fitness instructor named William G. Morgan who invented the game. Until recently , though, the sport's development in this country was almost exclusively on the recreational level. And if this has been true among the men, it has been doubly so with the women's game.
Until 1975, women's volleyball in the United States was considered a picnic sport - something you played between lunch and the time it took for somebody to turn the handle on the portable ice cream maker. But that was before Arie Selinger, the controversial head coach of the US Olympic team and a former Israeli paratrooper, brought his personal sense of discipline and dedication to the team.
Back in 1975, the US Volleyball Association finally tumbled to the fact that if it was ever to become world-class in this sport, Uncle Sam would have to duplicate the sort of all-out program adopted years before by other countries. The first women's national team was based in Pasadena, Texas, and was placed in charge of Selinger, who was just completing his doctorate in the psychology of exercise at the University of Indiana. He had previously coached the Israeli's women's team, acquiring a reputation as a fierce but successful taskmaster.
Eventually the team moved its headquarters to Colorado Springs, where it became the first US Olympic squad ever to train and live together the year round. Much of that was spearheaded by Selinger, who believes that in order to win at the Olympic level, one must eat, sleep, and think volleyball 25 hours a day.
While the Polish-born Selinger, who became a US citizen in 1979, is not without his critics, US Capt. Sue Woodstra of the US team told reporters just prior to the Games that she basically agreed with Arie's methods.
''To do well in volleyball, you have to train hard the year round,'' she said. ''Sure it's tough on everybody but we're not prisoners. The choice is ours.
''While calling what we do militaristic doesn't sound all that great, what it really means is discipline. You can't walk into the Olympics with a college all-star team and expect to win. It doesn't work that way any more.''
That first full-time US team trained for five years only to have its dreams shattered by the Moscow boycott. Five members were so frustrated that they simply quit and went back to pursuing normal lives. But the seven who remained (Flo Hyman, Debbie Green, Rita Crockett, Paula Weishoff, Laurie Flachmeier, Carolyn Becker, and Woodstra) took their personal disappointments and turned them into motivation.
Hyman, who spikes volleyballs with the same force that carpenters drive nails , is known the world over for her power. Crockett, whose 29-inch vertical leap can freeze a crowd the first time it sees her, is also a devastating attacker. Green, the shortest player on the squad at 5 ft. 4 in., is an excellent setter (playmaker). And every team should have a leader with Woodstra's consistency.
What Selinger has put together is a family; a bicycle built for 12 (6 of whom are starters) who during Olympic competition showed millions of spectators watching TV and in person what power volleyball is all about.
Most of the team members have been playing volleyball for at least nine years. Maybe the following doesn't constitute dedication in the traditional sense of the word, but for the record none are married, none have finsished college, and none expect to capitalize financially on their Olympic experience.
Sometimes locating Selinger (who doesn't always want to be found) is next to impossible. One alternative is his wife, Aia, the team's technical adviser and a former gymnast on the Israeli national team.
Asked why volleyball had taken so long to become popular in the US, Aia replied: ''For a long time everybody looked upon it strictly as a leisure time activity. You know a hobby; something you did after work for recreation, or played at a picnic. But once the public watched on TV, it created an entirely different feeling.''
Questioned about her husband's approach to the game, Aia said: ''To him it is a game of geometry that requires all the time his players can give it. Volleyball is a beautiful game because there is so much grace and motion in it. Players must be quick, they must be able to fly, and when they land and roll on the floor it is with the same instincts as a cat.''
So what if the Russians didn't come? It probably wouldn't have made any difference anyway, since the US women had defeated the Soviet Union in other volleyball tournaments five consecutive times since 1980!
China's defending world champions were here, however, and although the US won their preliminary round meeting, the Chinese rebounded to win the gold medal match. The Americans were disappointed, naturally, in not going all the way, but hardly discouraged.
''We are not dishonored losing to China,'' Selinger told reporters after the game. ''I don't think the team should be sad. They accomplished a lot. They should be proud of themselves. They have a nice story to tell. Nobody can take it away from them.''
Rose Magers of Big Spring, Texas, who led the US attack, voiced the same thoughts.
''This is history,'' she said. ''We reached a lot of our goals to play in the medal round. The silver is great. The gold would have been better...Hopefully, we have brought volleyball a long way.''