RIO de JANEIRO — As everyone knows, there are five categories of Olympic sports. These are:
1. Transportation sports (running, walking, swimming, sailing, rowing, equestrian, cycling, etc.)
2. Fighting sports (boxing, wrestling, judo, Taekwondo, fencing, shooting, archery, water polo etc.)
3. Jumping and throwing and lifting sports (long jump, high jump, diving, gymnastics, hammer throw, javelin, weightlifting, etc.)
4. Putting a ball in a goal sports (soccer, basketball, hockey, golf, team handball, etc.)
5. Backyard sports gone mental (badminton, table tennis, beach volleyball, etc.)
The last category of sports is my favorite. Volleyball, you should know, is utterly unrecognizable. The United States men played volleyball against Poland on Wednesday and while I’ve watched this team play on television before — and, of course, played plenty of backyard volleyball — there was no way to prepare for what volleyball at this level really looks or feels like. It is pure violence. It is stunning in its force.
You might know this: Volleyball was invented in America by a man named William G. Morgan in the late 19th century. That was a golden age for American sports inventors. Morgan actually knew James Naismith, inventor of basketball. They went to the same YMCA training school. I like to think of their rivalry as the subject of the next Lin-Manuel Miranda musical.
Anyway, after Naismith invented basketball, Morgan thought it was a fine sport but it wasn’t for everybody. He wanted to invent something a bit less strenuous, with less running around. He borrowed heavily from tennis and badminton, put a high net in the middle of a court, put a few people on each side, and let them bat a ball around. He called the sport Mintonette (like little badminton). A fellow professor called it volleyball.
Unlike basketball, though, Americans didn’t take to volleyball as well as many other countries. Volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1964, and the U.S. didn’t even COME CLOSE to winning a medal in the first five Olympics. The Soviet Union was the dominant team in both men and women.
Then came 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics, and the Soviet Union boycotted. The U.S. men dominated, rolling through Brazil in the gold medal match (the women also played well and won silver). That men’s team of a young Karch Kiraly and flat-top Steve Timmons and the rest really introduced the sport to America. They were so athletic. They hit the ball so hard. I, like so many other Americans, loved that team.
But you look back now at that team and it’s like looking at a whole other age. Every sport evolves, of course, but volleyball had transformed into something entirely new. On that incredible 1984 American team, the best players ranged from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-5, which seems pretty enormous. They all could jump. They hit the ball hard. A couple of them had strong jump serves.
On this team? Matthew Anderson is 6-foot-8 and he can spike from almost 12 feet off the ground. Aaron Russell is 6-foot-9 and can do the same. Maxwell Holt is also 6-foot-9. Taylor Sander is considered the little guy — in photos he appears to be like someone’s younger brother. He’s 6-foot-5. And he can fly.
They all can fly, that’s the thing you see up close, the athleticism, the jumping ability – it’s breathtaking. Everybody hits like John Isner serves. Everybody crushes the ball impossibly hard. Everybody looks like they’re jumping off little trampolines.
But, beyond the sheer athletic impressiveness, there’s the fury. Volleyball at home is such a happy game. At this level, it could be played in the octagon. In Wednesday’s match, Poland had similarly charged athletes, and the teams just kept hitting bomb after bomb at each other. The only comparison I could make was when Louisville and Houston played in the Final Four, that was the Phi Slama Jama Houston team and the Doctors of Dunk Louisville team, and the teams just kept raining down dunks on each other.
One team would pour down this impossibly vicious spike, and then the other would, and then one of the teams would leap at the net and reject one of the spikes (and this song “Monster Jam” to the old DMX tune for “Party Up” would play). Then an earth-shaking spike. Then a Mutombo-ike rejection. Players were getting knocked over by the ball. It was awesome.
And, apparently, it’s like this all the time at the highest level. The U.S. beat Poland to get into the semifinal. It was their fourth straight victory; the U.S. is playing really well now. “We have so much confidence,” Sander said. “I don’t know why.”
Next up, the U.S. plays Italy, another ridiculously good team with 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10 X-Men.
This is the Olympics. Everywhere you go, you see ridiculous athletes doing ridiculous things, even in sports that you mostly know from Fourth of July barbecues. You don’t even WANT to know how insane the badminton players here are.