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History of Volleyball

Volleyball has come a long way from the dusty old YMCA gymnasium of Holyoke, Massachusetts where visionary William G. Morgan invented the sport back in 1895. As the Director of Physical Education at Holyoke YMCA, Morgan’s primary responsibility was the development and administration of exercise and sports classes for YMCA members. Though basketball (invented only four years earlier) was quickly gaining popularity among young men across the nation, Morgan observed that many of the older members found basketball to be too violent and vigorous. Prompted by this demand for a mild, non-contact, recreational activity better suited to middle-aged business men, Morgan invented the game of volleyball, which he originally called “mintonette.”

Origins of the Game

Morgan relied heavily on his personal training methods and practical experience as inspiration for the new sport. His first experiments were essentially trial and error, detailed in his own account of the process: “In search of an appropriate game, tennis occurred to me, but this required rackets, balls, net, and other equipment, so it was eliminated, but the idea of a net seemed a good one. We raised it to a height of about six feet, six inches (1.98 meters) from the ground, just above the head of an average man but we needed a ball and among those we tried were a basketball bladder, but this was too light and too slow. We therefore tried the basketball itself, which was too big and too heavy."

Morgan eventually pieced together the right sport and was invited in the spring of 1896 to give a formal demonstration of the new game at a national conference for YMCA Physical Education Directors in Springfield, Illinois. At the conference, Morgan explained that the object of the game was simply to keep the ball in movement over a high net from one side to the other—there was no restriction on the number of contacts per individual or team, no limit to the number of players allowed per side and no position rotation.

After witnessing the demonstration, Professor Alfred T. Halstead called attention to the volleying nature of the game and suggested that the name mintonette be replaced with “volley ball.” Morgan and the conference accepted the new name, and thus, “volley ball” (changed in 1952 to volleyball) was born.

Early Development of the Game

Throughout the first decade of its inception, the game of volleyball remained largely unchanged. The first major rule changes were implemented in 1912, which established the number of players on side (6) and required a team to rotate positions before serving. The following decade brought a myriad of changes to the game, perhaps the most notable being the introduction of the set and spike. Other significant rules implemented around the same time include:

  • The ball could not come to rest in the hands
  • A player could not touch the ball a second time unless another player had touched it
  • The game would be played to 15 points
  • The net was raised to eight feet
  • Contacts were limited to three per side

These changes drastically altered the way the game was played, and by 1920, volleyball was hardly the same mild, simple pastime Morgan had initially envisioned.

Growth of the Game

By 1916, a YMCA poll estimated that over 200,000 people regularly played volleyball within the United States. In an effort to organize and establish a more youthful generation of players, the YMCA then convinced the powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to print the rules of the game and a series of articles on the sport in its widely distributed publication. The strategy worked, and volleyball quickly grew in popularity among college students.

A History of Olympic Volleyball

Although volleyball did not debut as an Olympic sport until the 1964 Tokyo Games, the origins of Olympic volleyball can be traced back to the summer of 1924. In response to the sport’s enormous popularity, volleyball was included in an American-sports exhibition at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris even though it was not a part of the official event. It was very well received by those who witnessed the demonstration, but still considered by many to be just a leisure activity.

The birth of the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB)—the first international volleyball federation—in the late 1950s, and the formation of several competitive confederations gave volleyball the legitimacy it lacked in the early twentieth century and helped initiate serious discussion about including volleyball in the Olympic program. In 1957, a tournament held in Sofia, Bulgaria was such a success that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally decided to officially include volleyball in future Games.

Below is a summary of the highlights from the volleyball competition in each of the Olympic Games:

Tokyo 1964

Men’s Division: The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia finished in a tie for first place with identical records of 8-1. The Soviets were awarded the gold medal because they beat the Czechs in head-to-head play, and Japan--the only team to defeat the mighty Soviet team--took home the bronze medal.

Women’s Division: The host team not only took won gold but also stole the show. Considered one of the greatest teams in sports history and comprised of a group of factory workers from northern Japan, this group of women won 157 consecutive matches from 1960-1964, including a world title and Olympic Gold.

Mexico City 1968

Men’s Division: Despite 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. Japan took second and Czechoslovakia finished third.

Women’s Division: The Soviet women dethroned Japan as Olympic champions and won all seven matches (dropping just three sets along the way). Japan returned home with the silver medal.

Munich 1972

Men’s Division: After failing to take home the gold in the ’64 games, the Japanese men’s national team launched an "eight-year plan" for victory. The plan came to fruition at the Munich games where the Japanese took home the gold, using a quick, multiple-attack offense to destroy the rest of the competition.

Women’s Division: The 1972 finals match between the Soviets and Japan is often cited as one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history. After almost three hours of fierce competition—so close that during the fourth set there was a run of 24 service changes without a single point being scored—the Soviets prevailed. The bronze medal match was not without drama of its own as North Korea defeated South Korea to win its first and only Olympic team medal.

Montreal 1976

Men’s Division: Poland defeated the mighty Soviet team in a close five set match to take home the gold. Given the fact that only the Soviets and the Japanese had managed to win in all previous Olympic contests, Poland’s upset of the Soviet team became a top headline of the Games. The Cuban men’s team also made its first debut in a medal ceremony and took home the bronze.

Women’s Division: After falling short in consecutive Olympic contests (runner-up finishes in 1968 and 1972), Japan returned to dominance with a 5-0 and undefeated set record. Their points to points ratio against the competitors remains of the highest in history—225 points scored : 84 points allowed.

Moscow 1980

Men’s Division: The Soviet team, with eight returning players from the 1976 silver medal team dropped only two sets as they cruised to victory in Moscow.

Women’s Division: The Soviet women, like their male counterparts, dominated the competition and dropped only three sets on their way to the championship where they defeated East Germany 3-0.

Los Angeles 1984

Men’s Division: Despite a lack of experience (the U.S. men’s national team had qualified for Olympic competition only once before in 1968) a star studded American team won gold for the nation where volleyball was invented. The U.S. national team defeated Brazil in three straight sets in front of a crowd of 12,000.

Women’s Division: Before the final against Team USA, Chinese star Lang Ping famously told her team to “pluck the medals from their necks” in response to seeing an image of the U.S. Men’s Team with their newly won gold medals. China did end up winning with a commanding, straight-sets victory. The U.S., with silver, also earned its first medal in women’s volleyball. Ping is now the head coach of the U.S. women’s team.

Seoul 1988

Men’s Division: The U.S. men’s team arrived in Seoul determined to show the world that their victory in Los Angeles four years earlier was not a fluke. The Americans advanced to the final match against the Soviets (who were absent from the 84 games). After losing the first set, the U.S. surged to victory by winning the next three sets and joined the Soviets as one of two countries to win gold in consecutive games.

Women’s Division: Peru’s team was coached by a South Korean and was thus favored by spectators. After defeating former podium teams from China, the United States and Japan, the Peruvians met the mighty Soviets in the final where they opened with a shocking two sets to none lead. After a swing in momentum, however, the USSR ultimately prevailed and took home yet another gold medal.

Barcelona 1992

Men’s Division: After finishing fourth in its pool and barely advancing to the men’s elimination round, the Netherlands upset favored Italy in the quarterfinals and then beat Cuba to guarantee its nation’s first Olympic medal in volleyball. They ended up with silver, following a straight-sets loss to undefeated Brazil in the final. The Dutch men were among the tallest volleyball players in Olympic history and averaged six feet, seven inches in height.

Women’s Division: Women’s volleyball team was no secret. After trailing Team USA, 9-8, in set five of the semifinals, Cuba stormed back to win, 15-11 and eventually went home with the gold.

Atlanta 1996

Men’s Division: Four years after being upset by the Netherlands in the quarterfinals – the only major loss to date—the Italian team made it back to the Olympic final. But once more, the Dutch prevailed, this time in an epic five-setter that lasted two hours, 57 minutes.

Women’s Division: Cuba was generally regarded as the best team in world heading into Olympic competition, and the volleyball world was stunned when the Cubans struggled through the opening rounds of pool play. But Cuba quickly bounced back and crushed their competition en route to the finals, where they faced the previously undefeated Chinese. After dropping the first set of the gold medal match, the Cubans cruised to victory in the next three sets to win back to back Olympic gold.

Sydney 2000

Men’s Division: Yugoslavia had emerged as a volleyball powerhouse and sentimental favorite in 1996 after 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 two round-robin losses in Sydney, the team rallied for the win and the gold against Russia.

Women’s Division: Cuba entered the final against Russia with a chance to become the first women’s team –in any sport—to earn three Olympic gold medals. They dropped the first two sets, before relaxing and rallying to win in five (25-27, 32-34, 25-19, 25-18, 15-7).

Athens 2004

Men’s Division: The much-anticipated men’s gold medal-match between Brazil and Italy, the top two teams in the world, did not disappoint. The Brazilian team finally won in four games to earn its second gold medal in men’s volleyball.

Women’s Division: 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 without injured 6-foot-5 middle blocker Zhao Ruirui. The Chinese team overcame the disadvantage at the net, however, and won the nation’s first gold medal in volleyball.

Beijing 2008

Men’s Division: The United States rode an emotional roller coaster en route to a gold medal performance. Two weeks before the finals match—at the start of Olympic competition—Hugh McCutcheon (head coach of the U.S. team) was given the news that his father-in-law had been stabbed to death while sight-seeing in Beijing. Despite the tragedy and the absence of their coach for three matches, the American team rallied to victory, and eventually defeated Brazil in the gold medal match.

Women’s Division: Despite their success throughout the previous two decades—seven previous Grand Prix Championships since 1993—and a number one ranking coming into the Beijing games, the Brazilians had yet to win an Olympic gold medal. All that changed after Beijing when they defeated a talented United States squad in four sets to take home their first ever gold medal.

Volleyball Today

Originally designed to be a calm and mellow pastime, volleyball has evolved into a dynamic sport whose global popularity is second only to soccer. It is played from the NCAA to the Olympics, from parks and picnics to packed stadiums with championships on the line, creating a sphere of influence and participation William G. Morgan never anticipated back in the Mt. Holyoke YMCA.

Volleyball has come a long way from the YMCA gymnasium in Massachusetts where it was invented. So, check out this guide for an in-depth overview of volleyball's history.
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