Team USA volleyball players are heavily favored to rule the beach and women’s indoor courts during this summer’s 2012 Olympics in London. But the U.S. men’s team, the reigning champions of the 2008 Games in Beijing, could lose its position as head of volleyball’s royal family.
Volleyball announcers for NBC Sports recently shared with Volleyball magazine some of their predictions about the upcoming Summer Games.
Queen Elizabeth II officially will open the “Games of the XXX Olympiad” on July 27 and welcome more than 10,000 competitors from around world to this majestic sporting event this summer.
Beach volleyball promises to be the “crown jewel” of the 17-day competition, which physically and mentally challenges athletes in 26 different sports.
This year’s “sand-sational” showdown takes center stage from July 28-Aug. 9 at London’s historic Horse Guards Parade. A total of 24 men’s and women’s teams will battle for gold in the shadows of Buckingham Palace.
“I think beach volleyball is going to be the place to be for the London Olympics,” said NBC announcer Kevin Wong, who will call the matches with sportscaster Chris Marlowe. “I can picture it already. Buckingham Palace is there in the background. You can see the London Eye. Prince Harry will be with the royal family in the VIP area watching the games. And maybe even the Queen.”
But all eyes will be on America’s queens of the beach courts – Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. They’ve dominated the sand and the top of the Olympic podium in the last two Summer Olympics.
Can this dynamic duo permanently etch their mark in the sand—and the Olympic record books—with an unprecedented third gold medal finish?
“Misty May and Kerri Walsh have got to be your No. 1 choice to win gold,” said Wong, who made his professional beach volleyball debut in 1995. “If someone is going win gold it’s got to be Misty and Kerri.”
Brazilians Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta Da Silva are the likely silver medal winners, Wong said. This No. 1 ranked team on the FIVB Swatch World Tour defeated May-Treanor and Walsh in 2011 to capture its first beach volleyball world title.
“They’ve proven they can hang under the bright lights,” Wong said.
China’s 2008 Olympic bronze medal winners—Xue Chen and Zhang Xi—prove another pair to watch.
“They’re a solid team,” Wong said.
Volleyball fans shouldn’t discount Italy’s Greta Cicolari and Marta Menegatti from the medal hunt, either. “Italy is a young team that has done great things,” Wong said. “They’re one of my sleeper teams.”
Another sleeper team, he said, is the Netherlands’ Marleen Van Iersel and Sanne Keizer. “They can do great things.”
Hana Klapalova and Lenka Hajeckova of the Czech Republic are also on Wong’s Olympic radar.
“They’re a team that seems to play without pressure,” he said. “They seem so mellow and down to earth. I think they can play in the Olympics and not be phased.”
Americans Jen Kessy and April Ross—the No. 2 U.S. team—are also poised for a huge Olympic win.
“I like to call them the big game hunters,” Wong said. “They have their eyes on the big prize…they’re a team that could win gold.”
Is it possible the United States could have two teams vying for gold? It all depends on how the teams are seeded, Wong said.
“I don’t know what the seeds are going to be. That’s something we need to watch.”
If it’s an All-American final duel on the sand, Wong gives the tip to May-Treanor and Walsh.
“You’ve got to go with Kerri and Misty because of their experience,” he said.
On the men’s side, Wong predicts the defending champions, Americans Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, will capture their second gold medals on the sand during the London Games.
“They’ve got to be the favorite to win it all,” Wong said. “This past season they had some injury issues, but I look for them to come back strong and defend their gold.”
Brazilians Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti—the men’s Team of the Year on the 2011 FIVB Swatch World Tour—should take home the silver medal.
“You’ve got to look at them first,” Wong said. “This is a scary team when they get going. The question there is Alison. The Olympics are a game-changer. But Emanuel has proven that he can do everything in this sport.”
Another team to watch, Wong said, is Germany’s Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann.
“They finished in the top four in the World Championships and are the toughest serving team.”
Germany’s second team of Jonathan Erdmann and Kay Matysik are also tough competitors, Wong said.
“They’re physically fitter than nearly everybody else. They make the right decisions and do the right thing. They also can deal with pressure.”
Two rising beach volleyball stars to follow in the Summer Games are Poland’s Grzegorz Fijalek and Mariusz Prudel.
“They’re a young, exciting team that has come out of nowhere,” Wong said.
Other teams beach volleyball fans should keep on their radars, Wong said, include Americans Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal; Xu Linyin and Wu Penggen of China; and Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins of Latvia.
Asked if John Garcia-Thompson and Steven Grotowski from the host country of Great Britain were a possible contender in beach volleyball, Wong said: “I lost to [them] this year. They’re a cagey team and [Garcia-Thompson] is an up-and-coming guy.”
NBC analysts are confident this is the year the U.S. women’s volleyball team will finally clinch the ultimate championship title and bring home Olympic gold. The reigning 2008 Olympic silver medalists are now under the direction of legendary coach Hugh McCutcheon and are set to up their play and win it all in London.
“In my mind, the Americans are the best team in the world,” said sportscaster and volleyball Olympian Kevin Barnett. “I’ve never seen a more talented gym on the women’s side of the game than what they have right now. You’ve got to look to them for the gold medal.”
His broadcast partner Paul Sunderland agreed, but with some reservations.
“I think the U.S. is a slight favorite to win the gold medal, but I don’t consider them an overwhelming favorite,” said Sunderland, a 1984 Olympic volleyball gold medalist. “They’re trending in the right direction. I would give them a little edge, but there are a lot of question marks on the women’s side.”
Sunderland, however, said the women’s team is loaded with talent.
“[Opposite] Destinee Hooker is unbelievable,” he said. “She’s getting better and better every time I see her.”
Middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo is another key player to watch.
“She is just an awesome physical talent,” Barnett said.
Setter Lindsey Berg is a game changer for the team.
“She’s been a huge plus because she runs that offense at a really high level,” Sutherland said. “And then you have outside hitters Logan Tom and Jordan Larson.”
Two lingering questions for the women’s team center on libero Stacy Sykora, who was seriously injured in a 2011 bus accident.
“Will she be back?” Barnett asked. “Will she push Nicole Davis out of the libero position?”
Predicting the next medal contenders on the women’s courts is a little trickier for these volleyball experts.
“I’d give Brazil a slight nod,” Sunderland said about the country that took home the gold in the 2008 Games. “But will Brazil be healthy? Will they have a couple of stud players?”
The next contenders on Sunderland’s Olympic medal “pick list” are Russia, Italy, and Serbia—but not necessarily in that order.
“There are really too many unknowns right now,” he said.
Barnett has a similar list of possible Olympic winners.
“Brazil is the main competition for the U.S. team,” he said. “Russia could come around, too.”
Serbia is Barnett’s sleeper team.
“They have a dangerous squad,” he said. “They’re big, physical, and have a good coach. They have a whole bunch of talent and if they stay healthy, they’re going to make some waves. Serbia could be the most surprising team out there.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in men’s Olympic volleyball is the team that hadn’t qualified for the London Games by late April – the U.S. men’s squad.
The 2008 defending gold medal champions will get another shot in May to make the Summer Games during the NORCECA Men’s Olympic Qualifier in California. If the men miss the mark in that showdown, they’ll have a final chance in June at the FIVB World Olympic Qualifier.
“I think there’s little doubt the U.S. men’s team will qualify,” Sunderland said. “But they have to beat a very good Cuban team [at NORCECA]. And the men’s team is not trending in a positive direction.
“I haven’t seen anything from this team that gives me any confidence they will compete for a gold medal in London,” he added.
Sunderland is confident that Russia will capture the gold in men’s volleyball during the London Games.
“I think Russia is clearly the favorite for a multitude of reasons,” he said. “First and foremost, they have the best talent and talent usually wins out.”
The Russians, who won bronze in 2008, are also well-coached and have a “sophistication and intelligence” about their game.
“They used to be really [emotionally] boring,” Sunderland said. “But now they have a system and they’re playing smarter and faster. They also have a couple of young players (including 7’2” middle blocker Dmitriy Muserskiy) who are absolute game changers.”
He added: “If Russia doesn’t win the men’s, I think they will have choked.”
Barnett agreed the Russians are the team to beat on the men’s side.
“Everybody is going to be looking at Brazil,” he said. “But in my mind, Russia has the best game. The question is: what Russian team will show up?”
The likely silver medalist on the men’s courts is Brazil, Sunderland said.
“They’re a solid team and they’re very good at every position.”
As he looked into his Olympic crystal ball, Sunderland envisioned a three-way battle for bronze among the United States, Serbia, and Italy.
But Argentina is also on his Olympic radar.
“They’re the hottest young team in the world,” he said. “I don’t think they can win, but they’re a team to watch. They could upset Brazil. They’re really good and getting better fast.”
What’s the key to success for the U.S. men’s team in the Summer Games?
“In order for the U.S. men to medal, opposite Clay Stanley has to have the best tournament of his life,” Sunderland said. “He’ll have to play out of his mind like he did in Beijing. It’s never up to one man or player, but Clay could carry the U.S. team to the medal round.”
Team USA needs another player to step up his game, too.
“For me, [outside hitter] Matt Anderson is key [to getting a medal],” Barnett said. “His continued development is critical for the U.S. team’s success.”
One worrisome issue men’s Head Coach Alan Knipe must resolve is who he plays as setter. Will he turn to one of the three players who have filled that spot since the 2008 Games: Kevin Hansen, Brian Thornton, or Donald Suxho? Or can the team lure Lloy Ball, who helped them win gold in 2008, back to the squad?
“The setting issue is a huge question mark. You can’t win without a stud in the setting position. You have to have someone who is world class in every sense of the word. The question is who?” Sunderland said. “This American team is a good team…it’s the top six or seventh in the world. But if you look at its recent results, it hasn’t beaten the teams it needs to in order to defend its championship.”
• 26 sports, 39 disciplines
• 34 venues
• 10,500 athletes
• 8.8 million tickets
• 21,000 media and broadcasters
• 17-day competition
• 7,500 team officials
• 10,000 temporary toilets
• 1 million pieces of sports equipment
• 375 doctors, 150 nurses
• 600,000 pieces of luggage handled at Heathrow Airport (203,000 on the busiest day, Aug. 13)
• 14 million meals served during the Games
• The 2012 London Games mark the fifth time beach volleyball has been played in the Olympics. The sport made its Olympic debut in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Ga. The United States has won five of the eight gold medals awarded since beach volleyball became an official Olympic sport.
• 2,274 tons of sand will be needed to fill one beach volleyball competition court, two warm up courts and two training courts.
• Beach volleyball can trace its roots to Santa Monica, Calif., during the 1920s.
• Indoor volleyball made its Olympic debut in 1964. The gold medals went to the Soviet Union (men’s) and Japan (women).
• The women’s volleyball team from Cuba won gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games: Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, and Sydney 2000.
• A game similar to volleyball—with five people on a side—was played in the Middle Ages.
• William G. Morgan invented the game of volleyball in 1895 as a gentle alternative to basketball. He wanted a sport the older men at his YMCA could play. Morgan originally called the game mintonette. In its early days, there were no limits on the number of players on a court at one time or how many times players could hit the ball before it went over the net.
• A ball can reach speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour during a men’s volleyball game.
• The official mascots for the 2012 Olympic Games are one-eyed characters called Wenlock and Mandeville.
More information and stats about the Olympic Games is available at London 2012
Beach volleyball fever has spread throughout London. The sand competition at Horse Guards Parade was one of the first events to sell out at the upcoming Summer Games. Members of Parliament have caught some of that “beach” fever. The British officials made headlines in April when they snatched up 410 tickets to the matches. That’s 164 more tickets then they purchased to the track and field events. Some criticized the move, saying government officials were too interested in the “skimpy” outfits worn by female beach volleyball players. Officials, however, said they wanted tickets to events that cost less than 90 pounds, like beach volleyball. They also said Horse Guards Parade is near the House of Parliament and other government buildings.
The International Volleyball Federation ruled in March that female beach volleyball players can wear shorts and sleeved tops if they choose—instead of bikinis—during the 2012 London Games. The Federation said it made the move to respect the cultural beliefs of female players in dozens of countries.
“Many of these countries have religious and cultural requirements, so the uniform needed to be more flexible,” FIVB spokesman Richard Baker told The Associated Press.
Volleyball fans will never forget the “unspeakable tragedy” that former U.S. Men’s Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon faced during the 2008 Games in Beijing. His father-in-law was stabbed at a local tourist site the day after the Opening Ceremony. He died a short time later. McCutcheon’s mother-in-law was also seriously injured by the knife-wielding attacker. McCutcheon missed the U.S. men’s first three matches, but returned to coach his team to Olympic gold. McCutcheon is now the head coach of the U.S. women’s team, which is favored to win the gold in the 2012 London Games.
Prince Harry took time to play a little beach volleyball during his trip to Rio de Janeiro in March. The 27-year-old Prince hit the sands of Copacabana to promote the 2012 Games in London and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. After his match, Prince Harry called beach volleyball “my kind of game.”
The Olympic beach volleyball matches will be played in Westminster’s Horse Guards Parade, which is near London’s famous Downing Street, the British Prime Minister’s Office, and Buckingham Palace. The name Horse Guards Parade comes from the soldiers, who have protected the monarchy since 1660. Many of London’s military ceremonies take place on the parade grounds, including the “Trooping the Colour” that is held on the Queen’s birthday each year.
A special arena was built for these Olympic matches and high-quality Redhill 28 sand from a quarry in Surrey was brought in to create London’s own “beach.” Beach volleyball matches will be played from July 28-Aug. 9. A total of 96 athletes—48 men, 48 women; 24 teams in each event—will battle for gold.
The Olympic men’s and women’s volleyball matches will be played in London’s historic Earls Court. The 40,000 square-meter exhibition center, which opened in 1938, hosts hundreds of events each year.
A total of 288 volleyball champions—144 men and 144 women with 12 teams in each event—will compete for the top spot on this year’s Olympic podium. The action starts on July 28 and runs through Aug. 12.
Men's Beach Volleyball
Gold: United States (Phil Dalhausser, Todd Rogers)
Silver: Brazil (Marcio Araujo, Fabio Magalhaes)
Bronze: Brazil (Emanuel Rego, Ricardo Santos)
Women's Beach Volleyball
Gold: United States (Kerri Walsh, Misty May-Treanor)
Silver: China (Tian Jia, Wang Jie)
Bronze: China (Zhang Xi, Xue Chen)
Men's Indoor Volleyball
Gold: United States
Women's Indoor Volleyball
Silver: United States
Originally published in June 2012