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Olympics guide: Volleyball

By David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton

Olympics guide: Volleyball

If anyone remembers the Atlanta 1996 Olympics there was a superb moment when, after one event or another, they cut back to BBC demi-God Des Lynam who managed to segue from one event to another with just these few words. He said, in his inimitable way: "Three words for you: Women's. Beach. Volleyball" before winking to the camera. And that was it.

We remember that like it was yesterday. Completely forgot the rules, mind you. But that's why this is here...

Athletes: 288 (indoor) 96 (beach)

Golds up for grabs: 4

Olympic presence: Indoor: demonstration sport 1924; full medal sport since 1964. Beach volleyball since 1996.

Olympic Format: In indoor volleyball twelve nations compete in groups to produce eight qualifiers for the knock-out rounds. On the beach twenty-four nations compete in groups to produce sixteen qualifiers for the knock-out rounds.

Contenders: In the men’s volleyball the USA , Brazil and Russia are the main players, but the Italians and the Dutch are competitive. In the women’s volleyball it’s Japan, China, Cuba and Brazil that everyone else will have to worry about. In the beach version, the big guns are the USA, Australia and Brazil.

Past Champions: Indoor USSR : 7 | Japan: 3 | USA : 3 | Brazil: 3 Beach USA : 5 | Brazil: 2 | Australia: 1

Watch it: Indoor: July 28 - Aug 12, Earls Court, London. Beach: July 28 - Aug 9, Horse Guard Parade, SW1A 1DH. Catch the BBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games across 24 dedicated channels on freesat



Indoor volleyball is played six-a-side with a high net dividing the court. Teams hit the ball back and forth over the net until one side grounds the ball in the opponents’ half or puts it out of play or into the net. Players may use any part of their bodies above the waist to hit the ball, but may not hold it. Any individual may touch the ball only once before it goes back over the net, but the team as a whole is allowed three hits before the ball is returned.

Dig, Set, Spike!

Play begins with a serve from the back line. The receiving side will look to dig the ball (cushion and control it with their forearms), then play a set up, putting the ball into a position where it can be struck hard and downwards over the net – a shot known as the spike (pictured, below). Whenever possible a team will try to block the ball as soon as it comes over the net so it drops straight back the other side and is hard to return. Players must not touch the net at any time.

Serving Up

Service rotates among the players of the team, each player continuing to serve until their team loses the point. Each time the side wins back the serve the players rotate clockwise around the court, consequently the best defensive players must sometimes play attack and vice versa. Serves may be underarm or overarm, but at Olympic level most players will throw the ball high, leap and attempt an overarm jump serve.

The Special One

The libero is a specialised position. The player must wear different kit from the rest of the team, can play only in the back row, and is not allowed to serve or spike the ball. The libero is usually a defensive specialist, who receives serve and cushions attacks from the back of the court.

Points, Set, Match.

Points are scored on every rally, with the winner of the point taking the next serve. Sets are won by the first team to 25, provided they are 2 points clear. If they aren’t, play continues until one side pulls 2 points ahead. Matches are the best of five sets. The fifth set is played to 15 points.


Substitutions can be made at the start of a set or during a time out. A maximum of six changes can be made per set. Each team has twelve members.

Beach Volleyball

The beach rules are the same as for indoor volleyball except that the game is played two-a-side, with no fixed player positions and no substitutions. The court is fractionally smaller and is played on sand which must be at least 40cm deep; the ball and is played on sand which must be at least 40cm deep; the ball is slightly bigger and pumped to a lower pressure; a block counts as one of the three hits; and games are the best of three sets – in the first two the winner is the first to reach 21 by 2 clear points (or to pull 2 points ahead), while in the third set it is the first to reach 15.

Extracted from How to Watch the Olympics by David Goldblatt & Johnny Acton (Profile Books)

(Image: Rex Features)