The sport of volleyball at the Summer Olympics is no new addition; both the men’s and women’s events have been played at the Games since 1964. In the men’s section, Brazil, the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union have cornered most of the gold medals. Five countries – Japan, Poland, Netherlands, Russia and the now defunct Yugoslavia have won once each. In the women’s section, Gold medals have been less evenly distributed with the fourteen editions of the Games since volleyball was introduced throwing up only five different winners viz. the former Soviet Union, Japan, Cuba, China and Brazil.
Even though volleyball had been formally included in the summer Olympics in 1964, its origins at the Games can be traced back to much earlier. In 1924 at the Paris Olympics, volleyball was played as an American sports demonstration event though no winners were announced.
The momentum to include it as an Olympic sport gained strength only after World War II when regulatory body FIVB and a few other continental confederations came together and requested the IOC to make it an official sport. Subsequently at the 53rd session of IOC in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1957, a special volleyball tournament was held to back up the request. Needless to say, the competition was a huge success and the sport was officially introduced at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
In the initial stages, volleyball at the Olympics was a straight competition on a round robin basis as in the World Cup. All teams played against one another and the teams were ranked by number of wins, set average and point average. But there was an inherent flaw in this system. After a few games it became apparent which teams were leading the table and which team was likely to emerge as the winner. Consequently, spectators began to lose interest in the remaining games and matches were played before almost empty stands.
To correct this anomaly, the completion was split into two parts from the 1972 games. A new round consisting of the quarterfinals, semifinals and the finals were introduced to keep spectator interest alive till the very end of the tournament. This format became the standard for the volleyball events for both men and women and is still prevalent today.
There were 10 teams in the 1964 Olympics for the men’s volleyball championship and 6 for women. From 1996, Atlanta Games, the number has been increased to 12 each.