PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—The volleyballs are flying high at Austria House, and the drinks are flowing. The music’s bumping a bass beat thick enough to rearrange internal organs, and the crowd throws up hands every time the DJ calls out MONSTER BLOCK or SUPER SLAM.
Oh, and it’s a balmy 35 degrees out. Perfect volleyball weather, right?
Beach volleyball has become one of the marquee events of the Summer Games, and now comes its snowy cousin with an eye on carving out a little slice of the wintertime sports pie. Snow volleyball isn’t anywhere near getting onto an Olympic slate, not even close, but at a demonstration event held on Valentine’s Day at the Austria House, within sight of the Olympic Sliding Centre, the energy was as high as almost any event this week.
The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) and the European Volleyball Confederation (CEV) rounded up a handful of notable beach volleyballers: gold medalists Emanuel of Brazil, Vladimir Grbic of Serbia and Giba of Brazil, as well as bronze medalist Chen Xue of China and Olympians Stefanie Schwaiger of Austria, Kim Yeon-koung of South Korea, and Nikolas Berger of Austria. The Olympians threw on some thermals, gloves, and soccer cleats, and took a turn in the snow as perhaps a hundred fans around them cheered and danced.
“We like to play in the mountains, in the beach, outside, inside, with children, with men and women,” CEV president Aleksandr Boricic said after the demonstration. “With snow volleyball, we can cover volleyball every day of the year.”
The purpose of this little exhibition was to show snow volleyball’s viability as a sport, and on that score, it succeeded just fine. But as an Olympic entry? That’s where it gets a little trickier.
Snow volleyball demands a different set of skills than the beach version, starting with the fact that, well, you’re on snow. Attendants with rakes chopped the snow into a fine powder, but by the end of the match, the stomping players, and dropping temperatures, had pounded the snow into slick near-concrete.
The altitude is a factor, as is the cold. Players in most snow volleyball events — though not this particular one — close off with a celebratory dip in a hot tub, but before then, the lower oxygen can tire even the best players.
It’s because of these inescapable factors — plus unpredictable ones, like the high winds savaging the Olympic Village at the same time the volleyball beats were dropping — that organizers from the FIVB and the CEV were preaching baby steps rather than big-picture dreams, “innovation” and “possibility” rather than expectation.
“What we do believe is that snow volleyball is great, it’s about engagement,” Azevedo said. “We want people to be playing volleyball. The future, who knows?”
The earliest snow volleyball could realistically make the Olympic slate would be 2026, following a stint as a demonstration sport in the 2022 Games in Beijing. But even that is no sure thing; the IOC historically has sought to keep sports confined to one season. (An attempt to bring cross-country running to the Winter Games in 2008, for instance, went nowhere.) Snow volleyball does have both a strong organizing federation and a ready availability of Olympic-level players, but even those might not be enough to get snow volleyball onto the Olympic slate.
In the short term, snow volleyball’s backers are focusing on smaller steps: a European Tour kicked off in 2015, and European championships will take place later this year. FIVB hopes to start a world tour in 2019, to be followed by world championships in 2020. Beyond that, well … we’ll see.
“What we do believe is that snow volleyball could be a great success in the world,” Azevedo said “We want more people to enjoy volleyball. The Olympics is not something we are pursuing right now. We want to get consistency and quality.”
As the sun set behind the mountains, a few hardy souls grabbed a leftover volleyball and stepped onto the court, now frozen slick as glass. They popped the ball over — and, often, under — the net with more volume than skill, but they kept playing.
With every winter sport, there’s the event, and then there’s the after party, which is usually even more fun than the sport itself. If snow volleyball’s able to yoke those two together, to make the sport into the party in a way no other winter sport this side of snowboarding currently does, it’ll be a success, regardless of whether it ever makes the Olympic big time.
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