RIO DE JANEIRO – Nothing will surpass soccer in the Brazilian sports pecking order, but volleyball is a strong second. Over 15 million locals are active players and it’s one of the only non-futbol sports that earns airtime on free TV in the nation. Their fans are loud, their athletes are proud and you really can’t beat the scenery on the beach side.
All of this factors into what many Olympians are claiming could be the best volleyball tournament in the history of the Summer Games – a history that stretches back to the start of indoor volleyball in 1964 and beach volleyball in 1996.
Here are six reasons why volleyball at the Rio Games could be the pinnacle of the sport:
1 – Beach Volleyball Is Actually On A Beach This Time!
The beach volleyball tournament at the 2012 Olympics was held at the Horse Guards Parade in Central London, which is not a beach. In 2008, it was held at Chaoyang Park in Beijing, which is not a beach. And so on.
But in Rio, the beach volleyball tournament is in a stadium that’s right on Copacabana Beach.
Like, right on the beach.
“It’s awesome to be playing on an actual beach. It’s how we practice every day,” said April Ross of Team USA.
The U.S. athletes said that the sand in Rio is typically tightly packed, but that tilling should make it a bit deeper, like the sand they’re used to playing on in California.
Beach volleyball on a beach. What a concept!
2 – The Fans
The atmosphere indoors and outdoors for volleyball in Rio is going to be a flamboyant party, thanks to the local fans who are the rowdiest in the world when supporting their national teams.
“Luckily we’ve played in some gnarly environments,” said Christa Dietzen.
This should really come into play at the beach venue, which is already infamous in previous Olympics for … well, shall we say, having well-lubricated fans for midnight matches. That’s included conga lines in the stands during play and in-house DJs getting fans dancing.
Kerri Walsh-Jennings looks forward to being a guest at the hostile party.
“I know they won’t be for us. But they’re always for great volleyball. So our goal is to get them on their feet and dancing and having fun. And since we don’t speak Portuguese, we’ll pretend they’re cheering for us,” she said.
3 – The Mammoth
Alison Cerutti is a 6-foot-8 monster for Brazil’s top men’s beach volleyball duo, partnering with Bruno Schmidt, who is the nephew of basketball great Oscar Schmidt. He’s nicknamed “The Mammoth” and for good reason, as his strong net presence helped his team to the world championship.
He earned silver in London, losing to a German team.
He’s probably angry about that. You don’t want to see him when he’s angry.
4 – Drama On The USA Side
Walsh Jennings is seeking her fourth straight gold medal in beach volleyball, but she’s seeking it without her longtime partner Misty May-Treanor, who retired from competitive play in 2012.
Enter April Ross, who earned silver in London and lost to that dynamic duo in the finals. The 34-year-old Californian has now played with Walsh Jennings for three and a half years. “People change partnerships all the time,” she said.
True, but it’s rarely a partnership that’s among the most successful in the history of the sport. So Team USA, still favored to win on the beach, has a bit of mystery to it: Can Walsh Jennings and Ross capture that same magic?
5 – The Parity
Volleyball’s growth as an international sport has created unprecedented parity in this Olympics’ tournaments.
“The competition is really tight,” said David Lee of the indoor team. “There are six teams that could potentially win. Obviously, the Brazil is the big favorite, being at home. But I don’t think we’ve seen [a tournament] where so many other teams could win gold. Normally you have two or three favorites that could be on top. Now you have a handful of teams.”
Same deal on the beach.
“This is the deepest Olympic field that I’ve been a part of. It’s crazy deep. There are at least 20 teams that can medal,” said Jake Gibb of the U.S. beach team.
6 – The Rivalry
“If the Americans win another gold, they’re going to have to overcome a powerhouse in Brazil.”
The preceding statement applies to all four volleyball tournaments.
You have Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca, as well as world champs Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas, in women’s beach volleyball. You have Cerutti and Schmidt on the men’s side.
Indoors, Brazil is favored to win gold in men’s volleyball and its women are a serious contender as well – having defeated the U.S. in the gold medal game in the last two Olympics.
“USA vs. Brazil goes back decades. We enjoy playing them, I think they enjoy playing us. We’ve had matches over the years here in Brazil. And this would be an epic match. It wouldn’t disappoint,” said Reid Priddy of the men’s indoor team.
The rivalry between the two volleyball nations is intense, and the U.S. would love nothing more than to ruin the party for Brazil.
“There are some bragging rights if you beat Brazil in Brazil,” said Phil Dalhausser of the U.S.
Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski reports live from the streets of Rio: