As the London 2012 Summer Olympics begin, excitement is growing around the top-notch matches that will take place during the indoor volleyball tournament.
The United States' national volleyball teams have both qualified, so Americans will be cheering for both the men and women to bring home the gold. The USA women have never won a gold, but they are the top-ranked team in the world going into the games. Brazil is the defending female champion from Beijing, and will also be competing at the London Olympics. The American men are the defending gold-medal winners from Beijing, and with powerful players, including Clay Stanley, Reid Priddy and Riley Salmon, returning, they may just pull off a back-to-back win.
For both men and women, the basic format of the Olympic tournament is the same. The sexes will compete on alternating days at Earls Court in the heart of London.
Here are all the things you'll need to know as play begins:
Teams: Only 24 teams will qualify to play volleyball in the London 2012 Olympics: 12 men's and 12 women's. Only Great Britain, as the host country, is guaranteed berths for both sexes. Otherwise, men's and women's teams from any given country must qualify by winning selected international tournaments leading into the games.
Rosters: Each team is allowed 12 players, for a total of 144 competitors of each sex in the tournament. Six players are on the court at all times, the six others are substitutes.
Tournament format: The 12 teams are broken into two six-team pools for the preliminary phase of the tournament. Each team plays every other team in the pool. The top four teams from each pool then advance into the knockout phase, playing quarterfinal and semifinal matches, which lead the winners into the gold-medal match. A bronze-medal match is also played between the two teams that lose in the semi-finals.
Match format: Each match played is won by the team that takes three sets out of five. Sets go to 25 points, with the fifth going to only 15. All sets must be won by at least a two-point advantage. Points are scored on every serve, regardless of which team served the ball. Matches generally take about two hours to play.
Court size: The indoor volleyball court is 18 meters long and 9 meters wide (approximately 60 feet by 30 feet), bisected by a net. The men's net is measured at 2.43 meters (approximately 8 feet) high and women's at 2.24 meters (7.4 feet). There are antennae on each side of the net, extending the court into the air. Balls must travel inside the antennae to be considered in play. There is a line marked on the court three meters back from the net. The back court players may jump from behind that line and attack (spike) the ball, but may not attack if starting out in front of that line.
Rotation rules: Players must rotate positions from front court to back court every time the ball is theirs to serve. The three players in the front court may switch positions after the ball is served, as can the three back court players. But backcourt players cannot jump and spike (attack) the ball at the net unless they start their jump from behind the three-meter line. The libero, who is the backcourt specialist that wears a different colored jersey, may substitute across the back for any player, but may not attack the ball above the net at any time.
Key dates and times: The 2012 Summer Olympics Volleyball tournaments will both be played at Earls Court in London, with men and women trading off days of competition at the venue. For women, it begins on July 28 at 9:30 a.m. (local time) and concludes with the gold medal match on August 11 at 6:30 p.m. It begins for men on July 29 at 9:30 a.m. (local time) and concludes with the gold medal match on August 12 at 1 p.m.
Jenny Peters played varsity indoor volleyball for University of Maryland, and continued her indoor career for many years on a USAV team based out of New York City. She has also been a CBVA AA-ranked beach volleyball player and continues to play beach doubles every weekend in Southern California, all year round. Except when it rains. Follow her on Twitter @jennpeters.