Volleyball at the 2012 London Summer Olympics

You wouldn’t know from watching Olympic volleyball competition today, but this aggressive, intensely competitive team sport (originally called mintonette) was initially developed at a YMCA in Massachusetts for older members who were finding basketball too physically demanding. William G. Morgan created the game in 1895 after being inspired by his college friend James Naismith, who had developed basketball four years earlier.

Volleyball exploded in popularity across the country and around the world. It was fully developed, sanctioned, and ready for Olympic competition in less than 70 years. The first Olympic medal competitions were held for both men’s and women’s volleyball at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Volleyball is now, in fact, one of the five largest organized sports in the world!

Volleyball at the 2012 Summer Olympics will take place between July 28 and August 12 at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London. Be sure to check the official schedule for any time changes.

Olympic volleyball basics

An Olympic volleyball playing field, called a court, is 9 meters wide and 18 meters long; a net stretched between two poles across its width divides the court in half. (The net for men’s volleyball is 2.43 meters high; for women’s matches, it is 2.24 meters.)

Here's what you'll see at a match:

  1. Two teams of six players face each other on either side of the net. The teams each form a front and back line of three players each. The objective, similar to tennis or handball, is to score points by landing the ball on the opponents’ side of the net.

  2. A player on one team serves the ball from the back right corner of the serving team’s court by hitting it with one hand; the ball (hopefully) passes over the net and into the receiving team’s territory. That team can then hit, bump, or otherwise touch (but not throw or catch) the ball only three times in the process of returning it back over the net.

    Strategically, those three allowed touches of the ball would most ideally include a first touch that slows the ball down after it comes across the net, gets it under control, and passes it on. The second player then manipulates the ball into a good position (sets it) for the third player to aggressively spike the ball, forcing it back over the net, hopefully at a speed and angle that prevent the opponents from returning it.

  3. Play continues with the ball being volleyed back and forth across the net until one team fails to return it or until a fault occurs (such as the ball landing out of bounds). The last team to touch a ball that lands out of bounds loses the volley.

    If the team that served the ball wins the volley, they score a point and continue to serve. If the receiving team wins the volley, they take over the serve (but are not awarded a point). Obviously, it is important to retain the serve, as it is the only way to score points.

  4. With each new serving opportunity, the players rotate positions clockwise; thus every athlete plays every position at some point. Thus, all members of the team must be equally adept at both offensive (attack) and defensive moves and strategies.

    The only exception is if a team opts to use a libero, a player who specializes in defense and rarely makes attacking moves like spiking. The libero wears a different color uniform so the player is easy to identify on the court. Each team may have only one libero.

Volleyball athletes must be quick, agile, think on their feet, and be able to jump high. Like basketball, taller players have many advantages over shorter ones because they are closer to the top of the net.

Olympic volleyball competition format

An Olympic volleyball competition between two teams is called a match. A match consists of up to five games or sets. Rather than timed periods, a volleyball set ends when the first team reaches a certain number of points (with at least a 2-point margin). In Olympic competition, the first four sets go to 25 points and the fifth set goes to 15 points. Whichever team wins more of the sets wins the match.

Twelve teams each compete in the men’s and women’s competitions. Each country is limited to one men’s and one women’s team, and each team is limited to 12 athletes (six players plus six subs).

The 12 competing teams are divided into two pools. The tournament begins with a round-robin competition within the pools; the best eight teams (two from each pool) move on to the knockout phase, where four more teams are eliminated. The four winning teams advance to the semifinals; the two semifinalist winners then compete for the gold and silver medals; the losers play each other for the bronze.

To learn more about Olympic volleyball, visit the website of the sport’s governing body, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB).

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