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Chaoyang Park Beach Volleyball Ground & Capital Gymnasium, Beijing

According to the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), beach volleyball was first played in California as a bit of light relief during the Great Depression.

And, having watched my first slice of the ball-and-bikinis game on Thursday (a day that Manchester in February would be disappointed with), I can confirm beach volleyball has mood-enhancing qualities.

But volleyball's bosses are probably over-egging it to suggest the sport was born for any historical reason. I think people started playing beach volleyball because they could - which reminds me of that old joke about dogs and certain parts of their anatomy.

Quite simply, beach volleyball is fantastic. It's old-school indoor volleyball I'm not so sure about. But before I get to that, let's have some background.

Indoor volleyball

A New Yorker called William G. Morgan invented volleyball (although he called it "mintonette") in 1895. A year later, another American, Alfred T. Halstead, saved the sport from ridicule by coming up with the name of volleyball. This was a huge step as there is no way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would have agreed to beach mintonette.

The next half-century saw the sport slowly spread to most corners of the globe, and by 1947 it was time for FIVB to spring into life. World championships followed but it wasn't until 1964 that the sport took its Olympic bow.

Recent years have seen the volleyball tweak its rules to make things a bit more exciting and the inexorable growth of its sandy offspring. The key date is July 1996, when beach volleyball packed them in at the Atlanta Games.

It was even more popular in Sydney, no doubt helped by Australia's run to gold in the women's event, and it was soon clear the student had outgrown the master.

In many ways, the strangest thing about beach volleyball as an Olympic sport is that the IOC agreed to it. This is an organisation, after all, that thinks dressage (Strictly Come Prancing) has a place in an international multi-sports event in the 21st century - and before you email in, I'm not knocking it for equestrian competitions, I know it is a supreme test of horsemanship.

By saying yes to beach volleyball, the IOC wasn't just agreeing to a few tonnes of sand and a hundred extra athletes: it was giving the green light to cheerleaders, loud music and a running commentary from a bilingual Ali G. I'm not sure this is entirely what Baron de Coubertin had in mind.

But beach volleyball's biggest weakness is also its biggest strength: the game is played by fit, young things in their swimming costumes. Actually, that's wrong. The game is played by fit, young women in their swimming costumes. The men get to dress like Australians.

This has led to some critics suggesting the sport is more suited Club 18-30 than the Olympics, and many Islamic countries have chosen not to embrace it for precisely this reason.

That, of course, is their prerogative but for the rest of us I've got news - beach volleyball is no more salacious than half a dozen sports here (have you seen women's high jump or pole vault recently?). Not only that, the sporty bikinis make complete sense for what they are doing, namely, flinging themselves around in the sand. The women, in fact, can wear less revealing, one-piece costumes if they want, but choose not to.

And what all of this completely obscures is that we are talking about highly trained, incredibly talented, full-time athletes. The feeling that you have wandered into a party at the Playboy Mansion by lucky accident doesn't last long and you're soon wrapped up in the ebbs and flows of a dynamic sport.

Rain pours as America beat China in the final of the women's volleyball

The game I watched - the women's final - had a bit of everything as it pitted the defending champions, the US partnership of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, against the coming force in beach volleyball, the Chinese pairing of Tian Jia and Wang Jie.

It was the first time at these Games that teams from the US and China had met in a gold-medal match, and it was played in a deluge. So we had the surreal scene of a packed Chaoyang stadium, clad entirely in pastel-coloured pac-a-macs, watching four women in bikinis attempt to recreate Santa Monica.

"Everybody in Beijing wants this ticket!" screamed the Ali G-alike in English and Mandarin, before reacting to a blocked spike with the immortal putdown, "Not in my house!"

The scoring was tight, with the American pair opting for power (particularly the long-limbed Walsh), while the Chinese duo mixed up their spikes with some angled dinks. Tian, playing in her third Olympic competition, was having a blinder, repeatedly retrieving lost causes or setting up her taller partner Wang at the net.

But it was the Americans, unbeaten for 107 matches, who came up with the big points when it mattered. And before too long they had wrapped up a 21-18 21-18 victory and a second Olympic title.

In the run-up to the final Walsh and May-Treanor hadn't always sounded as gracious as they might but in the post-match press conference they were politeness personified. Beijing was neat, the fans were wonderful and their opponents were great and will get better. They even had a quip about the weather.

"That's another reason we wear our swim suits," said May-Treanor.

The Chinese started off a bit glum but cheered up as the compliments came in from the champions. They also spoke about this being a breakthrough tournament for the sport in China - their second team beat Brazil to the bronze medal - and I think they might be right. There was a full-page, colour advert featuring Tian and Wang on the back of China Daily's main section today - I can't remember anything similar for the country's numerous winners in shooting or weightlifting.

I also can't imagine anything similar for their indoor volleyball compatriots, who lost their women's semi-final in straight sets to Brazil later on Thursday. It's not there was any disgrace in that defeat, the South Americans are a fine team and got better as this match went on, or that the players on the squad are any less lovely than Tian and Wang. It's the sport, that's the problem.

Indoor volleyball is a great game to play (many are the rainy Wednesdays I remember playing volleyball, or something similar, in the school gym as a youngster) and it's an OK game to watch. It's just not as good as beach volleyball.

It's almost as if the game Morgan invented was meant for the beach, not the hard floors of a gymnasium. Cricket, football and rugby on the beach are a laugh but they're not improved as contests by the shifting surface. Volleyball is, though. Being able to dive head-long at the ball without fear is liberating.

A player as skilled as Tian is too short for indoor volleyball, with its near total focus on height, but can operate on sand. And May-Treanor was a superb indoor player before quitting the national team because it wasn't "fun anymore".

The pace of beach volleyball is better too, and the players don't seem to feel the need to get together for a hug every 30 seconds, although I suppose with just two of them it would get a bit odd.

No, I'm a beach volleyball man all the way. And not for the reasons you think. That's what the cheerleaders are for and they appear every five minutes. Even in the rain.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


Comments

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  • 1. At 3:24pm on 22 Aug 2008, The Fonz wrote:

    Indoor volleyball is much better, especially the men's side of things. Beach volleyball for guys goes something like:

    - serve to the short guy
    - tall guy sets
    - short guy wins the point
    - other team serves
    ad infinitum

    There are no rallys. And technically, it's nowhere near as interesting. Watching a good indoor setter command an attack with decoy hitters then a huge hit from the back court (eg Dante from Brazil) is 1000x better than anything you'll see on the beach.

    Beach is the 5-a-side football of volleyball.

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  • 2. At 3:28pm on 22 Aug 2008, spearof wrote:

    Sounds like you’ve done a great job of convincing yourself that beach volleyball is superior for reasons other than watching girls who look like they’ve just come from a FHM photo shoot!!

    I’m no expert on either form of the game but I’m pretty sure that the indoor game does have room for some shorter players. The Japanese player Shin manages to be an outstanding player despite her lack of inches.

    But well done and thanks for acknowledging that the indoor game exists.

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  • 3. At 3:29pm on 22 Aug 2008, freddawlanen wrote:

    Good article Matt, I couldn't agree more.

    When I fist saw a match on tv (the Sydney games) I thought that it looked like a 'good laugh', yet the more I watch, the more I appreciate the skill and athleticism involved.

    I just hope the weather in 2012 stays fine for the competitors and spectators.

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  • 4. At 3:49pm on 22 Aug 2008, Mich wrote:

    I think you're talking about sports you don't know.

    First of all I agree with comment one, there is much more technical ability to indoor than beach volleyball.

    Secondly just because a sport is not big in the UK doesn't mean that it's not a great sport. Do some research and you'll find just how big indoor volleyball is around the world.

    Thirdly a new position called a Libero was specifically created in beach volleyball some years back. So there is room for smaller players.

    However, like beach volleyball, that room is limited.

    I enjoy both myself and wish the coverage of the indoor event was much better.

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  • 5. At 3:51pm on 22 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    Evening all, thanks for commenting so soon.

    The Fonz, fair enough, I'm only going on the very good game of beach volleyball I saw (a lady from USA Volleyball confirmed that I'd seen a good 'un) and the less good indoor game. It started OK but then tailed off and I definitely saw more rallies in the beach game than the indoor one.

    spearof, you're right, I know there are shorter players in the indoor game, particularly the liberos. But because there are more players on the court (and they're all massive), they seem less important, less central to the action. The translation for Tian's comments in the press conference wasn't great but I think she made the same point.

    freddawlanen, trust me, they played in shocking weather yesterday. I've got some pics on my camera, I'll try to get them on the BBC Sport flickr page.

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  • 6. At 4:03pm on 22 Aug 2008, The Fonz wrote:

    Matt, try to watch the indoor finals if you can. Then maybe you can post again with a review and another comparison of the volleyball versions? I'd be interested to see what you think once you've seen a bit more indoor.

    I'll also add a quick point - not everyone indoor is huge. And you forget that Dalhausser and many of the beach players are as tall as the indoor players. Giba (Brazil, indoor winger http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giba) is arguably the best player in recent times. Not unusually tall by any means - he's about 6'3".

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  • 7. At 4:13pm on 22 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    I'll try, Fonz, I'll try!

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  • 8. At 4:38pm on 22 Aug 2008, David Shield wrote:

    Good artical Matt I agree with you.

    When I go camping in the summer we play a lot of volleyball but on grass and with 5-6 players a side.

    So I have been watching both the indoor and beach volleyball this year with interest and compairing it to how we play it.

    The beach version is a much more interesting game to watch and looks a lot more fun. The indoor version on tV looks too fast and the hugging after every point does my head in!

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  • 9. At 5:27pm on 22 Aug 2008, cadifblues wrote:

    Hey Matt,

    I'm not going to comment on your attempt to redeem the irredeemable (!), just to give you a big thanks for replying on your own blog.

    Too many of your colleagues seem not to want to get their hands dirty on these blogs, so it's nice to have some proper interaction for a change!

    Cheers,
    Jon

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  • 10. At 5:32pm on 22 Aug 2008, The Fonz wrote:

    ----
    Too many of your colleagues seem not to want to get their hands dirty on these blogs, so it's nice to have some proper interaction for a change!
    ----

    Yeah, me too - it's appreciated Matt.

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  • 11. At 6:56pm on 22 Aug 2008, paul scarf wrote:

    I tried watching the indoor volleyball, a game I played as a kid, but couldn't get past the players happy slapping and high fives every part of the body without clothes on each time a point was won. How much time is allowed for all the false jollies. The time they spend knuckle riffling, elbow tapping and bum slapping could be a sport on its own.

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  • 12. At 7:09pm on 22 Aug 2008, gefafawisp wrote:

    why why why is beach volleyball "fantastic"? The play is tiresome, the matches are drawn-out, and the watered-down female titillation aspect is pathetic.

    The coverage of the sport on NBC in the US has been especially infuriating.
    a) the women aren't that attractive: being 6'3'' tends to lead to some strange body shapes...
    b) i don't care if, how and when the tall blonde one lost her wedding ring - this was covered seemingly non-stop for days over here
    c) to show the entirety of every US match is just ridiculous - they last forever! - meanwhile there is zero coverage of the majority of sports

    I thought, and I was hoping, that it was only US TV which had fallen so far as to follow the formula of
    1) girls in skimpy tops
    2) loud music
    3) cheerleaders
    4) ???
    5) profit!!

    Unfortunately is seems to have crossed the Atlantic..

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  • 13. At 11:45pm on 22 Aug 2008, Karl wrote:

    Beach volleyball must the be most sexist sport in the Olympics since women were allowed to participate at all. There can be no justification for the discrepancy between the womens' gear and the mens'. According to an editor of an American beach volleyball magazine the players are only required to wear clean, customary beach wear, both men and women. Yeah sure...

    One cannot help thinking the sport is included in the games because NBC, who owns the broadcasting rights in America, needs to keep the male demographics interested in the games during the gaps between Phelps and the US basketball team. I also understand that they only broadcast a compilation of the athletics events with a ten hour delay.

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  • 14. At 01:31am on 23 Aug 2008, TravellingMosha wrote:

    Being heavily involved in sport at University (in England, just for reference) I encountered indoor volleyball before any others and the players I spoke to (including a few young national players) seemed to be of the impression that indoor volleyball is where the real skills are, and that although beach volleyball is fun, it is not so serious.

    Now I am not debating the skill of the beach volleyball players at the Olympics however I do think the earlier comparison to it being akin to 5-a-side football is a good one. It may be more fun, but it is really a very different game.

    As to the height issue, many of the university volleyball teams incorporate a lot of players who are smaller for their increased speed and agility at the middle and back of the court.

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  • 15. At 01:32am on 23 Aug 2008, Leesio1981 wrote:

    1st time blogger here, so take it easy on me!

    I just wanted to say that no matter what the views are here, its really good to see that the BBC is broadcasting Volleyball games on National Television and Online. Being a keen local volleyball player, i can appreciate how great a game Volleyball is, and that we really need to raise the profile of the game here in the UK, and thanks to the BBC this is happening!

    I've really enjoyed watching some top class Volleyball over the last few days, which unfortunately is rare because the sport doesn't get the coverage it deserves.

    Anyway roll on London 2012, and hopefully they'll be a Great Britain team whcih will help promote the sport here further.

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  • 16. At 01:33am on 23 Aug 2008, TravellingMosha wrote:

    Edit - just to clarify, by "I encountered indoor volleyball before any others" I meant I encountered indoor volleyball before any other variations. I was not even aware that it's full name was indoor volleyball.

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  • 17. At 03:47am on 23 Aug 2008, Bunny wrote:

    It was amazing to hear the old type of surfing and other music "oldies" they were playing there in Beijing at these volleyball games. Interesting collection and really adding to the ambience. I have no idea who is in charge of the music.

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  • 18. At 04:58am on 23 Aug 2008, Nick Sweeney wrote:

    "Beach is the 5-a-side football of volleyball."

    No: beach is the 3-and-in of volleyball. Having endured it every night in primetime on NBC, I am heartily sick of it, and the knock-on disrespect accorded to the athletics.

    The bikini-only rule was only expanded this year after complaints from an Indian team. The men and women representing Georgia were bought in from Brazil. The competition was set up to provide Americans with flesh and gold medals.

    Indoor volleyball actually has a shape and character to it -- but when college players in the US want to make money by having sponsors' names on their backsides, they head to the beach.

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  • 19. At 05:19am on 23 Aug 2008, RFedex wrote:

    I agree. Beach Volley seems more technical to me. Players use the whole court with a mixture of spikes and dinks.

    Rarely do you see dinks in indoor volleyball, or effective ones at that since for the most part the libero gets his hands to it and once that happens the advantage switches completely. Hence players are reduced to spikes nearly every shot.

    I also hate the cuddling after every point and perhaps worst of all the unsportsmanship. I guess its just the nature of the game but most of the time both teams start celebrating after the point, with one quite clearly trying to con the ref into thinking it hadnt clearly touched their finger from an opposition spike. This isnt so much so in the beach version.

    Ideally id have 3 players on a beach court since there does seem a bit too much space at times. But the indoor version is way too overcrowded.

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  • 20. At 06:11am on 23 Aug 2008, hizento wrote:

    Why is it that when the cheerleaders comes on the camera moves away? I get so angry not able to see what the crowd enjoying.
    Whatthe hell am I paying the license fees for when the BBC always cut away denying my right to watch the cheerleaders. Is this some kind of PC feminist controllers at the BBC stopping us from seeing?

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  • 21. At 06:54am on 23 Aug 2008, amazonmothe wrote:

    Can't say it grabbed me that much but I slightly preferred the beach volleyball to the indoor, that I found full of angst.

    Couldn't work out why the women get soooo much hotter than the men. The women wore bikinis and the men looked more like basketball players!

    Is there really a dress code?




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  • 22. At 07:03am on 23 Aug 2008, Spoonplex wrote:

    beach volleyball is more like rugby 7s...

    Maybe beach volleyball doesn't have as much technical ability as indoor volleyball players but they seem to rely on instinct more and have more natural talent and athletism.

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  • 23. At 08:31am on 23 Aug 2008, fildinni wrote:

    I've read a few comments on this and other blogs criticising the coverage by NBC. Having been in the States during the Athens games so have some sympathy. However, although with BBCi, the coverage here has been fairly comprehensive you could argue that there has been a heavy focus on events such as the cycling and rowing and a lot less on events like the judo...

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  • 24. At 08:50am on 23 Aug 2008, Matt Slater wrote:

    gefafawisp, I sense your pain and you have my sympathies. I also agree to your point about the "crumpet factor", it's all a bit OTT.

    As for the matches being drawn out, I'll have to take your word for it. The one I saw zipped by, whereas the indoor game was the one that dragged a bit.

    That said, (and the Fonz et al will like this), I saw the US v Russia men's semi on TV yesterday. Much, much better. I even caught a glimpse of Brazil's Diego in action in the other semi - that man can serve.

    I should perhaps clarify, however, that I'm in Beijing so have no idea what the BBC has been televising back at home. So I don't know if they've shown much volleyball, beach or otherwise. Generally speaking, however, neither version gets much of a look-in on British TV so I don't think you can say it's crossed the Atlantic yet.

    RFedex, I'm clearly not an expert here but on what I've seen of the two sports I would agree. An extra player in beach volleyball would be interesting to see, as would one or two fewer in indoor.

    Leesio1981, I agree. I strongly believe a host country should contest every event possible, so I will be looking forward to seeing GB teams in both volleyball events in London. I'm told our development squad has been playing in the Dutch league and doing pretty well. It's a similar ploy to the one British Handball is using with our academy in Denmark.

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  • 25. At 10:29am on 23 Aug 2008, ghostrider_203 wrote:

    I for one have enjoyed watching both the indoor and beach volleyball coverage on the bbc interactive and online live video feeds. I've also enjoyed the basketball coverage aswell, these are 2 sports which do not get much coverage in the uk if its not Football,cricket or rugby it does not get shown on UK TV.
    I do agree with hizento's comments about the cameras not showing any of the cheerleading and on court shows during time outs or ends of quaters,sets. It did get a bit annoying that when a live match was being shown at half time especially in the basketball matches you just had an up high view of the court, if the cameras were running the whole time why not focus on the entertaiment on court

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  • 26. At 10:30am on 23 Aug 2008, MrPogo wrote:

    I know it's (in some respects) a tired old point, but it's impossible to make a case against any other sport until they get rid of everything involving horses.

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  • 27. At 10:35am on 23 Aug 2008, swearydad wrote:

    I can't see the attraction of women's beach volleybore myself. Everyone is a tall skinny with no upper-body ladyparts and as for it being a sport, I'd describe it as a fun game to play on holiday but that's it.

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  • 28. At 10:38am on 23 Aug 2008, Lordy L wrote:

    The problem for me is that beach volleyball just LOOKS like a joke. Also, the post by Mr Pogo about horses is bang on!

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  • 29. At 10:58am on 23 Aug 2008, U9563463 wrote:

    There wil hopefully be a GB side in 2012. The girls train at the University of Bath.

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  • 30. At 11:45am on 23 Aug 2008, AndieRae wrote:

    If it needs dance music etc to generate excitement in the crowd or audience, something about the sport is not working. This is a sport whose credibility can only rise to the level required when they play a world championships in Devon in winter.

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  • 31. At 12:03pm on 23 Aug 2008, gorpet wrote:

    I don't know about beach volleyball being played during the American Deression, but I remember it very well in my youth at Seabright Beach in Northern California near Santa Cruz. In that context it was an essential part of the beach experience. For one thing the Pacific Ocean in Northern California is glacial. And this was in the days befoire the invention of wet suits. So, before we went into the water to body surf, everyone had to get warmed up. This we did with a good game of volleyball.

    Two players a side was the absolute minimum for a game. Better was 3, ro 4. The local concessionaire usually provided the poles, but we surfers organized our games. Those not in the game collected a third team to challenge the winners, in the fashion of the 3-on-3 Street Basketball in the cities.

    The important thing missing in the Olympics is the glacial water to cool ya off. Maybe it would be even better in tghe Olympics to have a pool for the players to jump into between sets.

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  • 32. At 12:13pm on 23 Aug 2008, exetercity123 wrote:

    i dont understand how beach volleyball can be an olympic sport and squash not. It is entertaining to watch to a certain degree but there are far too many sports in the Olympics that do not even come close to needing the skill and fitness that top level squash has.

    sort it out olympics!

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  • 33. At 2:27pm on 23 Aug 2008, finnity wrote:

    It's not beach volleyball that should be worried - anything with a horse can take its story walking. It made me sick how the commentators gushed over the horses ("this is just such a brilliant horse"), rather than talking about the humans involved. It's frankly ridiculous.

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  • 34. At 5:01pm on 23 Aug 2008, backcourt wrote:

    Sorry i can't agree with most of the positive comments about beach VB.

    I have been playing both forms of VB at various levels since 1969, by the way I doubt it is officially called "Indooor VB", there is no other game in the world that is as exciting to play, watch or teach. It involves every player on the team in every rally, which is more than be said for many of the mainstream sports.

    However beach VB is just that, a game of VB on the beach, I have played this in Miami, Venezuela, Aberdeen etc but it is NOT real VB, but it is fun and cerainly better than not playing it.

    As great as it is to see the coverage of the sport on the TV, it would be even better if they had people commentating who had played the game, even in their dreams, rather than not, as they could possibly explain the game to people instead of just saying what a great smash that was: when did "spike" become "smash"?

    Apparently VB is one of the strategic sports for team GB in the 2012 games, however funding for the Scottish regional development officer was cancelled last year, what kind of message does that give out to yougsters?

    Anyway i am looking forward to the men's final, should be fast and furious.

    P.S. if you think the games are drwan out now, you should have seen them when you did not get a point for winning service, we regularly had matches that lasted 3 hours!

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  • 35. At 09:02am on 24 Aug 2008, aussieref wrote:

    Hi Matt
    It was great to hear your enthusiasm about the sport. Indoor Volleyball is actually referred to as "Volleyball" by the FIVB - the sports' governing body.

    Maybe some of the detractors should try jumping out of sand to hit/block a ball over a 2.43m net (2.24 for women) whilst trying to stop the ball hitting 64 square meters of sand and then try to tell us it is not a sport.

    I love both sports and miss my days refereeing both at international level and the totally committed athletes.

    No one has mentioned the inclusion of BMX...WTF???

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  • 36. At 09:06am on 24 Aug 2008, Bright Blue Shorts wrote:

    Those who complain about all the hugging and back-slapping between points fail to understand that it's actually a very important part of the team's psychology. It's not an ego-driven, me-first thing you see with goal scorers in football.

    Anyone who has ever played or coached in a formal competition will tell you how silent it can become when your team has just lost 3 points in a row, and is struggling to even the get the ball back over the net. It feels even worse when the opposition are whooping and hollering and enjoying themselves.

    Volleyball teams are very prone to the highs and lows of psychological momentum and being able to stay together as a team is one building block on the road to success.

    It's a shame that the TV companies cover this and it draws comments from the viewers when there were many rallies in the final with great defensive plays or blocking. It would have been much more beneficial to see replays of these. In beach volleyball, the referee actually has a link to the TV controller telling him when the replay has finished and the next point can be started.

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  • 37. At 11:32am on 24 Aug 2008, vballed wrote:

    The beach court is only slightly smaller than the indoor court, but the indoor game has six players on court. If you play the beach version, then all you do is play the ball to where the opponents aren't and the rally is over.

    In the indoor game, you have a huge number of technical and tactical options in both attack and defence. A lot of the time, the ball is retrieved by the defence and the rally continues.

    I would say that makes for a more exciting and interesting game for youngsters, although the sun, sea and sand might appeal to them more!

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  • 38. At 12:01pm on 24 Aug 2008, Bright Blue Shorts wrote:

    Firstly let's us remember that the athletes in both variations are all enormously talented. Both Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh who won the women's beach gold played indoors for the U.S. national team earlier in their careers.

    While the sports essentially use the same basic skills, it is how they are used tactically and strategically that differs.

    The indoor game is mostly about disguising one's attacking strategy to try and create situations where the attacker is only going against one blocker. The beach is about disguising one's defensive strategy.

    For the record, although the beach court is only a metre shorter, at 8x8metres as opposed to the 9x9metres indoors, that actually turns out to be a 20% difference in court area on each side of the net.

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  • 39. At 03:51am on 25 Aug 2008, rebecca0813 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

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