Olympic Volleyball History – how the sport started at the Tokyo Games

This year, volleyball is returning to the city where it first started its Olympic journey – Tokyo. 

It seems only fitting to look back at the history of Olympic volleyball since we’re returning to its Olympic birthplace. 

So what year was it introduced? How has the format changed? And where do beach and sitting volleyball fit into all of this? 

Indoor volleyball returning to its Olympic roots in Tokyo 

The Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) was founded in 1947 and formed the groundwork for making volleyball a world-recognized sport. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognized volleyball as a non-Olympic sport in 1949, and in 1957, the IOC cast their votes and volleyball was made into an Olympic sport.

The indoor volleyball competition had its Olympic debut in 1964 featuring both the men’s and women’s competition with Japan winning the gold in the women’s event and Soviet Union winning the gold in the men’s event. 

It was almost dropped in the next Games in 1968, but protests prevented it from going away, so volleyball remained at the Olympics that year and for many years to follow. Now, over 50 years later, volleyball is returning to Tokyo, and Japan has the potential to win the gold again as well. 

Japan take Gold in the inaugural women's volleyball tournament in 1964
Japan take Gold in the inaugural women’s volleyball tournament in 1964

Changing up the format of tournament play 

When volleyball first came to the Olympics, it was set up in a round-robin tournament, where every team played each other and the finalists were determined by number of wins, set average and point average. This was a problem because winners could be determined before every team got done playing each other, which made fans lose interest in later matches after the winning teams were already determined early on in the tournament. 

So after the 1968 Olympics, they switched to the 12-team format they still use today where each team plays each other once and then the top four teams advance to the semifinals. Teams can move up and down easily on the leaderboard in this format, causing fans to be more engaged with each match. 

Plus this makes for a more competitive season before the Olympic Games as teams compete to appear in the Games and be one of the 12 teams to advance to the preliminary rounds. 

Adding Paralympic volleyball and beach volleyball to the Games

In 1980, volleyball was officially and fully introduced to the Paralympic Games after having a successful trial run in 1976. They started out with having both standing and sitting competitions, but moved away from the standing discipline in 2004 after the Olympics in Athens. 

In the 1980 Paralympics, the Netherlands took home the Gold in the men’s sitting competition, but there wasn’t a women’s competition at the time. In the most recent 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Iran took home the gold medal for the men and the USA took home the gold medal for the women. 

Beach started officially in 1996 at the Games in Atlanta after a demonstration of the sport went really well in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The first official tournament in ’96 had 24 teams on the men’s side and only 16 on the women’s, but expanded to 24 for both the men and women in 2000. 

The beach competitors are determined by how they perform in FIVB tournaments over the course of about 18 months leading up to the Olympics, and only two teams from each country can qualify for the Olympics. 

In the first official Olympic beach event in 1996, Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes from the USA won the gold medal on the men’s side, making Kiraly the only person to win a medal in both the indoor and beach volleyball competition. The Brazilian duo of Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires won the gold for the women after beating another team from Brazil in the final match. 

Karch Kiraly taking beach volleyball gold at Atlanta 1996
Karch Kiraly & Kent Steffes taking beach volleyball gold at Atlanta 1996

Most elite players in volleyball history

As the sport grew in popularity, so did its players. As mentioned above, Karch Kiraly became one of volleyball’s most well-known and versatile players, winning medals in both the indoor and beach competitions. He’s now expanded his playing knowledge into coaching and is the USA women’s indoor volleyball head coach. He’s looking to secure another gold medal with his top notch team at this year’s Olympic Games. 

Speaking of women’s indoor volleyball, Mireya Luis was a force on the court for the Cuba women’s national volleyball team in the ’90s. Standing at only 1.75m tall, she didn’t let height get in the way of her outstanding outside hitting abilities, especially with her 3.39-meter vertical. She helped Cuba win three Olympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000, two world championships in 1994 and 1998 and three FIVB World Cups in 1989, 1991 and 1995.

Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor are some of beach volleyball’s most popular players after winning the gold medal at the Olympics in 2004, 2008 and 2012. In addition to that, they also won the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007 with some fans and players naming them “the greatest beach volleyball team of all time.” 

In Brazil, Giba owned the men’s indoor volleyball competition for most of the 2000s. Giba played outside hitter for the Brazil men’s indoor national volleyball team from 1995–2012. He went to three Olympic Games and won two silver medals and one gold medal. In addition to that, he helped his team win three world championships, and was named “The most famous Volleyball player in the World” by Sky Sports in 2011. 

Kerri Walsh Jennings & Misty May Treanor take Beach Volleyball Olympic Gold at London 2012
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings celebrate another historic gold at the London 2012 Olympics

What’s next for volleyball at the Olympics? 

Volleyball, as an Olympic sport, hasn’t been around for too long, and today, there are three volleyball disciplines being played across both the Olympics and Paralympics: indoor, sitting and beach.

Over the years, the players have gotten stronger, the rallies have gotten longer and the matches have gotten more intense. For both the teams and fans, this sport continues to grow and gain momentum, and it will be exciting to see teams return to the Olympic stage and compete for the all-important Olympic gold medal in Tokyo this year.