The 1996 Olympic Games had some milestone moments in volleyball history. As you already know, foremost among them was the Greatest Volleyball Match Of All Time. But there was other volleyball stuff going on at the same time. 1996 was the Olympic debut of beach volleyball, which in itself could be considered as something of milestone.
The history of Olympic Beach Volleyball is an interesting one. Nobody in the world, outside a few beaches in California, cared much about beach volleyball until more or less out of nowhere, the US men’s team won the 1984 Olympic gold medal. That team stood out from the volleyball that had been played until that time. As is widely known, they developed the two receiver system that revolutionised world volleyball. At the time however, they were just as famous for their general play as their tactical innovation. Observers noted their excellent defence, and above all their ability to respond to unusual game situations. As many of their players had played a lot of beach volleyball, those same observers attributed this ability to having played beach volleyball. When people from outside found their way to California to see some beach volleyball, they discovered that it was way cool and people liked it, which kindled the FIVB’s interest. By 1988, FIVB had invented a world championships and next year the beginnings of the World Tour. Almost immediately they began pushing for inclusion in the Olympics, which they received in 1994 for the 1996 Games. But it wasn’t all wine and roses.
That left the small matter of how one qualified for the Olympics. Although FIVB had the international power and, not insignificatly the Olympic mandate, the American tour (AVP) was the best and by far the most important and prestigious. One definition of a compromise is a decision that leaves both parties unhappy. The FIVB and AVP had to reach a compromise and it was successful; both parties were unhappy. All teams had to qualify through the FIVB World Tour, nearly. The FIVB wanted to promote its tour and didn’t want teams qualified through other avenues. The AVP wanted to promote its tour and wanted complete control over American qualifiers. The USA were allowed three entries. The compromise was that one American team would be qualified through the FIVB tour and two would be qualified through the a US trial. Given that the tours ran concurrently and each had a minimum participation requirement some kind of schism was inevitable. Which brings us to the personal part of the story.
Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith were childhood friends. The played indoor volleyball together at UCLA. As beach volleyballers they won the ‘World Championships’ together at the age of 19. In his book Spike!, Doug Beal describes Sinjin Smith as ‘only wanting to play with his friend Karch Kiraly’. At that point their paths separated; Sinjin stayed on the beach, Karch went in the gym. Sinjin became (with Randy Stoklos) the greatest beach volleyballer ever. Karch (with two gold medals) became the greatest volleyball player ever. By the time the early 90’s came around, Karch was back on the beach and Sinjin was past his best. They were no longer playing together. Being the competitors they were, both wanted to play the inaugural Olympic Beach Volleyball tournament. Karch chose the AVP way. Sinjin chose the FIVB way (cynics suggested because he had no other chance to qualify). At some point it became personal. Karch said that the US players on the FIVB weren’t good enough to compete on the AVP tour and were therefore not worthy representatives of the USA (explicitly agreeing with the cynics). Sinjin said that the FIVB was the best for world volleyball (excplicitly not caring).
Sometimes shit happens. Sometimes shit is made to happen. I have no clue which scenario led to Karch (and his partner Kent Steffes) meeting Sinjin (and his partner Carl Henkel) in the quarter finals of that first Olympic tournament. In the end it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s not the greatest match beach volleyball match of all time, I really don’t know. But given the back story and the personalities and the quality of the match there can’t have been many better than this one.
Click here for a postscript to the match.