Olympic Volleyball: Disciplines, Teams, Rules, Balls and more

We take you through everything you need to know about volleyball in the Olympics – from what disciplines there are, to how many players on a team and more.

There’s no doubt that the Olympics is an exceptionally special event, and one that represents the very pinnacle of so many athletes’ careers. For such a celebrated occasion so drenched in history to be postponed, is unheard of in peacetime. But rather than mourning a summer of what-might-have-beens, we can look to 2021 as being a huge year, with an extra year of anticipation and the likely outpouring of emotion and good vibes round the world that will come with the inevitable end of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Olympic volleyball competition is the most prestigious tournament in the the sport. But the postponement of 2020 won’t dampen the spirits; an extra year of preparation will only further whet the appetite for national volleyball teams across the world, with defending champions Brazil (men) and China (women) gearing up to defend their unique five-year-long reigns as champions. Of course, they will be challenged by the typical powerhouses of Russia and the USA, under the watchful eye of what could be record numbers of fans.

As a monument to the “lost” Tokyo Olympics of 2020, and a build-up to 2021’s celebration, we’re taking a look at everything you need to know about Olympic volleyball: the two disciplines, the rules, the teams, and even the balls.

Olympic Volleyball Quick links

Olympic Volleyball Disciplines

Olympic volleyball started at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, with the home team, Japan winning the women’s gold medal. Then, in 1996 (Atlanta), beach volleyball was added as the sport’s second discipline, following a successful showcase in Barcelona in 1992.

Volleyball in the Olympics

The indoor tournament is contested by 12 teams, with several qualification criteria, including pre-qualification for host nations. The qualification round is a pool event, with the top four teams from each pool advancing to play a traditional knock-out competition (quarterfinals, semi-finals and a final). There is also a bronze medal match (often called a third-place play-off in non-Olympic settings). Each team takes a squad of twelve and there are no injury dispensations.

China celebrate after winning gold at Rio 2016 Olympics

Beach Volleyball in the Olympics

In beach volleyball, teams of two compete as a pair, with each country being able to enter multiple pairs. Indeed, in 1996, two pairs from the USA contested the men’s final, and two pairs from Brazil contested the women’s final.

In men’s beach volleyball, 24 pairs have always entered. This is now the same as the women’s tournament, though this initially started smaller. The current format also comprises a pool stage, with six pools of four. The top two from each pool qualify for the knock-out stages, along with the best two third-place teams. The remaining two spots in the last sixteen knockouts are decided by two repechage matches between the remaining four third-place teams. As with indoor volleyball, there is a gold medal match and a bronze medal match to conclude the tournament.

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

Olympic Volleyball Rules

The main rules of Olympic volleyball are the same as the International Volleyball Federation rules:

  • A match is played over a maximum of 5 sets, with a team winning if they get to 3 sets
  • Sets 1-4 are played to 25 points; if a fifth and final set is required, it is played to 15
  • Each set must be won by 2 clear points, with no upper points limit to establish this
  • Six players per side and three hits allowed per side (excluding blocks)
  • Rally scoring – both the serving and defending teams can win any point; the following serve goes to the winner of each point
  • Teams swap sides at the end of each set

Beach Volleyball Rules in the Olympics

Beach volleyball is played with similar rules to indoor Olympic volleyball, but with 2 players per side instead of six:

  • Beach volleyball is only played over 3 sets (first to 2)
  • Sets 1 and 2 are played to 21 points; if a third and final set is required, it is played to 15
  • As with indoor volleyball, each set must be won by 2 clear points
  • Rally scoring
  • Teams swap sides every 7 points (sets 1 and 2) and every 5 points (set 3)

Olympic Volleyball Teams

Since 1988 (1996 in women’s volleyball), the indoor Olympic tournament has been contested by twelve teams. In the men’s tournament, Brazil are the current defending champions and have won the gold medal three times – a record equalling tally alongside the USA. Russia have won the gold medal once, but the former Soviet Union were also three-time Olympic champions.

In the women’s event, China are the defending champions; their third title. Brazil had won the gold medal on the previous two occasions in London and Beijing, while Cuba won an unprecedented hat-trick of titles from 1992-2000.

Karch Kiraly celebrating with the USA Olympic Volleyball Team
Legend Karch KIraly leads Team USA to Oylmpic Gold in Seoul 1988

Beach Volleyball Teams in the Olympics

In men’s Olympic beach volleyball, Brazil have established a run of dominance, winning either gold or silver at every Games this century. However, the USA has won more gold medals, with 3. The same is true in the women’s game; Brazil has had at least one team in either the gold or bronze medal matches at every Olympics but despite this, no Brazilian team has won the gold medal this century. Instead, the USA claimed three straight gold medals from 2004 to 2012, and the Brazilian pair of Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas were denied the gold in 2016 thanks to a shock win for Germany.

Brazil pair Cerutti / Schmidt take Olympic Gold for Brazil at Rio 2016
Brazil pair Cerutti / Schmidt take Olympic Gold for Brazil at Rio 2016

Olympic Volleyball Balls

The Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) sanctioned competition ball is the Mikasa
MVA200, which has also been used at the previous two Olympic games. It has dimples over the
surface to allow for easier handling, which encourages a faster pace of play and longer rallies.

Beach Volleyball Balls in the Olympics

Mikasa also manufacture the official ball for the Olympic beach volleyball competitions – the
VLS300. Again, the design is focused on easy handling, but the ball is very different. Beach volleyballs are larger and have a lower psi as they have to adapt to outdoor weather conditions, such as wind and heat. The VLS300 is also made to be extra water resistant because of the sport’s common proximity to the sea.

Looking to the Future

Of course, with the postponement of Tokyo 2020 and sport around the world as a whole, we can only hope that volleyball resumes as soon as is safely possible. In the meantime, we can enjoy a prolonged period of speculation and allowing excitement to mount as we look forward to finding out which beach volleyball teams will qualify to play in the Olympic tournament, and how the already qualified indoor teams perform in the FIVB’s Volleyball Nations League.