As we gear up for maybe the most anticipated Olympic Games in modern history, it feels apropos to revisit the Games that started it all for our favorite sport – Atlanta 1996.
Until then, beach volleyball wasn’t an Olympic Sport. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, beach volleyball was a demonstration sport, which is basically a sport common to the host country that they want to introduce the world to. It must have gone over well because, in 1992, the world was ready to welcome Olympic Beach Volleyball into the fold. The 10,000-fan stadium at Atlanta Beach sold out for every match.
In that first Olympics, there were 24 Men’s Teams and 18 Women’s Teams (the gender disparity soon to be rectified in 2000) playing a double-elimination tournament. The Women’s side was handled by the Brazilians. The Gold Medal Match was between Jackie Silva/Sandra Pires and Mônica Rodrigues/Adriana Samuel. Silva and Pires won 12-11, 12-6. The American Women’s team of Barbra Fontana and Linda Hanley made it to the Bronze Medal Match but were edged out by Australians Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst 11-12, 7-12.
You may be thinking – what the heck are those scores? The first Olympics had a curious scoring structure. Each match was only one sideout game to 15. Sideout games mean you only score when you’re serving (similar to the modern-day AVP Freeze). The Gold and Bronze Medal matches were then upgraded to two sets to 12. And apparently, you didn’t have to win by two. So weird. Side note: the scoring stayed this way through the 2000 Sydney Olympics and changed to rally scoring in Athens 2004.
But back to 1996. While the Women’s side saw a Brazil/Brazil final, the Men’s side favored the home teams. Three American Men’s teams qualified that year (for reasons that are too confusing to outline here). At the 2, 3, and 4 Seeds sat (in order) Sinjin Smith/Carl Henkel, Karch Kiraly/Kent Steffes, and Mike Dodd/Mike Whitmarsh.
These three teams were absolute powerhouses. They were the best on the beach and out for blood in this first go at an Olympic Gold Medal. Sinjin and his former partner Randy Stoklos won the Demonstration Games in Barcelona 1992. Mike and Mike made it to 5 AVP Finals in 1996. The AVP that they won was against Karch and Kent in San Francisco.
But Karch and Kent were the Kings of the AVP that year. They played in 21 AVPs, made 15 Finals, and won 11 Championships. That’s insane.
The Americans all looked so good in 1996. The three teams were undefeated until a USA vs. USA battle in the Fourth Round (aka the Quarterfinals). Karch/Kent barely took it against his former partner (and rival) Sinjin Smith/Carl Henkel in a 17-15 brawl that took 55 minutes. Sinjin and Carl had match point twice (14-13 and 15-14), but Karch and Kent fought it off and claimed the W. Sinjin and Carl then lost to the 18-seeded Portuguese team that had a phenomenal showing in Atlanta and who had lost earlier in the Games to Sinjin and Carl 7-15.
For their victory, Karch and Kent were rewarded with another all USA match. But this time, it was for Gold. Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh had cleaned up on their side of the bracket, not allowing any of their opponents to earn more than 10 points.
Even with Mike and Mike’s standout performance leading up to the Gold Medal Match, Karch and Kent were the better duo. Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes won the first Olympic Gold Medal 12-5, 12-8 in a match that took just a bit over an hour.
One of the most significant results of the Atlanta Games was Karch Kiraly’s solidification as the Best Male Volleyball Player Ever. Karch’s name had been thrown out as the GOAT before ’96. But after he won the Gold in Atlanta, it was certain. Karch is still the only player to win an Olympic Gold Medal in both indoor (in Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988) and beach volleyball.
Sounds pretty GOAT-like to me.