Host country Brazil won the men's tournament after losing in the gold-medal final in back-to-back Olympics to earn its third Games title. Its victory against runner-up Italy was the first 3-0 final win since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Brazilian libero and 2004 Athens gold medalist Sergio Santos was awarded MVP honors and his fellow countryman, opposite Wallace de Souza, led all scorers with 147 points – 19 more than the second best player. The United States took bronze in a win over Russia.
China won the women's tournament for its third Games title as well, and first since the 2004 Athens Games, beating Serbia 3-1 in the gold-medal match. Volleyball legend Zhu Ting absolutely dominated throughout the entire tournament for China, scoring 22 more points than any other player for a total of 179 and also leading in spike efficiency at 42.27%, rightfully earning MVP honors for her efforts. The United States also took bronze on the women's side with a win over the Netherlands.
The London Games ended in upset for the U.S. women who entered as the top seeded team. Under the leadership of former U.S. men's coach Hugh McCutcheon, the team dominated through the preliminary matches, quarterfinals, and semifinals, only dropping two sets. Team USA met their Brazilian rivals in the Gold Medal Match. In a disappointing repeat of the 2008 Beijing Games final, the U.S. women lost to Brazil 3-1.
The men's Gold Medal Match did not disappoint as the top seeded Brazil and second seeded Russia went head to head. Brazil won the first two sets 25-19 and 25-20. With fate holding the third set, Russia returned to win 29-27. The Russian men held the Brazilian's off, winning the final sets 25-22 and 15-9. Oddly enough, both teams finished the match with points totalling an even 108.
Beijing in general, and the U.S. Olympic men's volleyball team in specific, were struck with tragedy on the first full day of the Games. U.S. coach Hugh McCutcheon's in-laws were stabbed by a knife-wielding man while visiting a tourist site; Todd Bachman died on the scene, while his wife Barbara suffered severe injuries, but survived. McCutcheon immediately left the team to be with his wife, Elisabeth, and family, missing the Americans' first three matches. But the players, stirred by the tragedy, won each time out in their coach's absence, and kept winning with him back on the sideline. They cruised into the gold-medal match against defending champion Brazil, and on the final day of the Olympics, the U.S. captured gold with a four-set victory. Overcome with emotion, McCutcheon hugged his assistants after the final ball dropped, then retreated to a hallway to gather himself. He reemerged to celebrate with his players, collect his gold medal, and leave as the feel-good story of 2008.
One day earlier, the U.S. women faced their own showdown with Brazil in the women's final. Many of the American females were close with McCutcheon's wife, who was a 2004 Olympian, and were impacted by the tragedy just as much as the men. That may have contributed to their pool-play loss to Cuba, but like their male counterparts, the U.S. women put together an inspired run to reach the gold-medal match. However, the top-ranked Brazilians collected their first women's indoor volleyball gold medal, putting on hold the U.S. women's team's quest for its first Olympic title.
The much-anticipated men's gold medal-match between Brazil and Italy, the top two teams in the world, did not disappoint. Sparked by the blocking of 6-foot-8 Dante Amaral, Brazil stormed to a 25-15 victory in game one and carried that momentum into the second game. But Italy ratcheted up its defense and blocking to take game two, 26-24, behind Andrea Giani and Andrea Satoretti. But the Italians could not handle the serve of Brazil's Gustavo Andres and dropped the third game, 25-20. Both teams traded points in game four, but Brazil held on to win, 25-22, earning its second men's volleyball gold medal. As it did in Atlanta in 1996, Italy earned the silver.
China entered the women's gold-medal match against Russia as the Olympic tournament's top team in four of the six major statistical categories -- spiking, serving, setting and receiving. But the Chinese were without injured 6-foot-5 middle blocker Zhao Ruirui and were at a distinct disadvantage at the net against Russia's 6-8 star Ekatarina Gamova. But Ping Zhang tallied 25 points to help determined China overcome 33 points by Gamova for a 28-30, 25-27, 25-20, 25-23, 15-12 victory and China's first volleyball gold medal since 1984.
Yugoslavia emerged as a volleyball power in 1996, winning bronze in Atlanta despite the mid-Games departure of captain Dejan Brdovic when his 14-month old son died of a brain tumor. After taking silver at the 1998 World Championships, the Yugoslavs recovered from two round-robin losses to win Sydney gold with a straight-sets defeat of Russia. The U.S. men went 0-5 for its worst Olympic volleyball showing ever.
With a chance to become the first women's team -- in any sport -- to earn three Olympic gold medals, Cuba dropped the first two sets of the Sydney final against Russia. "We were very tense ... because of the pressure of winning a third gold medal," said Regla Torres, considered Cuba's best player of all time. "Then we relaxed and changed the way we played." With a new attitude and approach, the Cubans stormed back to win in five sets (25-27, 32-34, 25-19, 25-18, 15-7).
Four years after being upset by the Netherlands in the quarterfinals -- the only major event to date it didn't win -- men's volleyball superpower Italy got a shot at revenge in the Atlanta final. But once more, the Dutch prevailed, this time in an epic five-setter that lasted two hours, 57 minutes. Favored again four years later in Sydney, Italy came up with bronze.
Barcelona, 1992: After finishing fourth in its pool and thus barely advancing to the men's elimination round, the Netherlands upset favored Italy in the quarterfinals, then beat Cuba to guarantee its nation a first Olympic medal in volleyball. The color was silver, following a straight-sets loss to undefeated Brazil in the final. The Dutch men were among the tallest volleyball players in Olympic history, averaging 6 feet, 7 inches. Their previous team in Seoul averaged 6 feet, 7 2/3 inches.
Though Cuba boycotted the 1984 and 1988 Games, the excellence of its women's volleyball team was no secret by Barcelona's arrival. What wasn't known was how well the world's most talented team could handle Olympic pressure. The answer was very well. Trailing Team USA, 9-8, in set five of the semifinals, Cuba stormed back to win, 15-11. Against the Unified Team in the final, the Cubans again proved mentally tough, winning in four close sets, 16-14, 12-15, 15-12, 15-13.
Led by Karch Kiraly, the U.S. men's team arrived in Seoul out to prove that its 1984 triumph -- at the Soviet-less Los Angeles Olympics -- was not a fluke. Fittingly and predictably, the Americans and Soviets met in the Seoul final, with the U.S. dropping the first set before bouncing back to win in four, joining USSR as the only repeat champions in men's volleyball.
Having gone four decades since it last celebrated an Olympic champion, Peru saw a potential end to that drought in its 1988 women's volleyball team, which was coached by a South Korean and was thus favored by spectators. After defeating former medalists China, the United States and Japan, the Peruvians met the mighty Soviets in the final. Peru opened a shocking two sets to none lead and was in front, 12-6, in game three before the first of several momentum swings. The USSR ultimately prevailed, 17-15 in the deciding fifth set.
Los Angeles 1984
Entering Los Angeles, the U.S. had competed in men's volleyball at the Olympics only twice before, placing seventh in 1968 and ninth in '64. But a squad led by Karch Kiraly, Steve Timmons, Pat Powers, Aldis Berzins, Craig Buck and Dusty Dvorak struck gold for the nation where volleyball was invented. In the final, buoyed by a boisterous crowd of more than 12,000 at the Long Beach Arena, the Americans routed Brazil in straight sets.
Upon walking into the arena for the 1984 women's volleyball final against Team USA, Chinese star Lang Ping spotted a TV monitor displaying an image of the U.S. coach and some players wearing gold medals. After alerting her team, Ping said, "Let's pluck the medals from their necks." China, in its first Olympic women's volleyball tournament, avenged a preliminary-round loss to the Americans with a commanding, straight-sets victory. The U.S., with silver, also earned its first medal in women's volleyball. Ping later became the U.S. women's head coach for the 2008 Olympics.
On home turf, the Soviet men's team, with eight players back from the 1976 team that took silver, dropped just two sets en route to gold. The Soviet Union's women were similarly supreme, losing just three sets in five matches. The USSR became the first nation to sweep volleyball gold medals.
After consecutive runner-up finishes in 1968 and 1972, Japan returned to the fore of women's volleyball with an astonishingly dominant performance in Montreal. The numbers: a 5-0 record, zero sets lost, and 225 points won to 84 points allowed. Only one team -- South Korea -- reached double figures in a set against Japan.
From 1964 through 1980, the Soviet Union and Japan combined to win nine of the 10 gold medals in men's and women's volleyball. The only other champion in that stretch was Poland, whose underdog men rallied from match-point down in a memorable Montreal final to defeat the Soviets in five sets.
In what remains among the most stirring and memorable volleyball matches of all time, the Soviet Union successfully defended its women's Olympic title with a five-set victory over rival Japan. The match, which lasted more than two-and-a-half hours, was so close that during one stretch in the fourth set, there was a run of 24 service changes without a single point being scored ("rally scoring" was not yet the rule). In the bronze-medal match, North Korea defeated South Korea, 3-0, for its first and only team medal in Olympic history.
After winning bronze in 1964 and silver in 1968, Japan's "eight-year plan for victory" ended with a 1972 gold medal for the men's team. Eight of Japan's 12 players in Munich were on the runner-up 1968 team in Mexico City, and three were on the third-place squad in Tokyo in 1964. Japan used a highly complicated offense designed by mastermind coach Yasutaka Matsudaira, who revolutionized volleyball with his "multiple quick attack."
Mexico City, 1968: After an upset loss to Team USA in its opening match and a brief scare from East Germany, the Soviet Union cruised to a successful defense of its Olympic title in men's volleyball. The Americans wound up seventh. The Soviet women dethroned Japan as Olympic champions, winning all seven matches and dropping just three sets along the way.
In the late 1800s, William G. Morgan was attending Springfield College in Massachusetts when he invented a sport called "mintonette." This birth of what became volleyball occurred just a few years after James Naismith -- also at Springfield -- invented basketball. Volleyball's international governing body (Federation Internationale de Volleyball) was founded in Paris in 1947, and less than two decades later, the sport was added to the Olympic program for the 1964 Tokyo Games.
One of the greatest teams in sports history, a group of women's volleyball players representing a factory north of Osaka, Japan, won 157 consecutive matches, a world title and Olympic gold during a four-year run in the early 1960s. The team's authoritarian coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, was known for putting his players through long, brutal practices every night, after they'd spent the day working in the company office. "I was growing my nails, because I wanted to retain some of my femininity," recalled captain Kawanishi Kasai. "He thought I was growing my nails to hurt him, which wasn't true ... but I did often wish the ball would hit him in the face." In winning gold in Tokyo, Daimatsu's team won all five matches, outscored the opposition 238-93 (in points) and dropped just one set -- against Poland -- when Daimatsu noticed that the Soviet coach was watching and decided to pull some of his stars.
The men's volleyball competition in Tokyo saw the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia each go 8-1 to finish tied atop the standings. The Soviets, having defeated the Czechs head-to-head, were awarded Olympic gold because of a better points for/against ratio. The Soviet Union's only loss was to host Japan, which took bronze. The U.S. men, rocked by dissension over Coach Harry Wilson's decision to leave highly regarded Gene Selznick off the team, managed only two victories.