Cherif Younousse sat behind a mountain of food at the Ezdan Hotel, host of the Doha bubble for both the one- and four-star events last month. He appeared as relaxed as a man who is in the throes of a tight Olympic race can be. Asked if he knew which teams were close to him in the Olympic ranks, he shrugged.
No, he didn’t really know. Nor, in fact, did he really care who is on his and Ahmed Tijan’s heels as the pursuit for Tokyo nears its end. He just knows there are teams in front of him.
Teams he’d like to catch.
His is an enviable mindset. For his overall health and stress levels, it is likely for the best that he does not take many, if any, backward glances at the provisional Olympic rankings. The teams that are in pursuit of him and Tijan are many.
And they are not far off.
At the moment, roughly two weeks before the onset of the Cancun Bubble, the Qataris are ranked No. 14 in this Olympic race. Under the current qualification system, the top 15, with a few, complicated exceptions we don’t need to get into in this particular story, are assured Olympic berths. Holding the fourteenth spot is not exactly a stress-reducing endeavor.
They are not alone in this position. There are a handful of teams who can rest easy, but these are few: Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, Michal Bryl and Grzegorsz Fijalek, Alison and Alvaro, Evandro and Bruno, Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo, Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs.
Those teams are either already qualified via other avenues – winning World Championships, winning the Olympic Qualification Tournament, Brazil ending its own federation’s qualification early – or have earned enough points to be mathematically fairly safe. Everyone else, like Cherif and Ahmed, must continue to perform at an exceptional level in the final five tournaments prior to the June 13 qualification deadline.
Leading the pack of close but not yet qualified are Russians Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov. They came as close as one can get to qualifying, losing in the finals of the Olympic Qualification Tournament to Latvians Plavins and Tocs. But Semenov has done this before – twice, actually, competing in London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Both times, he qualified via points. He’s on track to do so a third time, with Leshukov, his quicksilver fast defender who had done little on the World Tour prior to getting picked up by Semenov. A brilliant start to the qualification period – they won gold in their first event in Yangzhou in 2018 – has since faded into a menagerie of consistently middle-of-the-pack finishes. They’ve finished in the top 10 in all but two of their FIVBs together since Yangzhou, but they haven’t medaled since Warsaw of 2019, where they claimed bronze.
But medals aren’t entirely necessary to qualify for the Olympics. Consistency is. And Leshukov and Semenov find themselves ranked No. 10 and in a safe position to qualify for Tokyo because of it.
The same general thinking applies for Spain’s Pablo Herrera and Arian Gavira. Like Semenov, they are two-time Olympians each. Like Semenov and Leshukov, they are consistent, perpetually in the top-10, occasionally bringing home a medal. Ranked No. 11 in the Provisional Olympic Rankings, they are quite the opposite of the team directly behind them: the Czech Republic's Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner.
The 26-year-olds blitzed the field at the Doha four-star, winning their first gold medal as a team, and their first medal since battling through to the finals in Ostrava in 2019. They’re hot when they’re hot, and not exactly cold when they’re not, but it’s worth noting that their only medals have been a silver or gold. When they don’t make the finals, they could throw in a puzzling 25th or 17th -- which isn's exactly a bad thing, either. While the consistency of, say, Spain or Russia, is nice, having a few top-heavy results also means that Perusic and Schweiner have a few finishes they could easily drop and replace with something of more value.
This is why the gold in Doha was such a boon for Perusic and Schweiner, who leapt up to No. 12 in the Olympic ranks, in the coveted top-15 but not yet safely out of the woods. Another medal would do the trick, and given their propensity for making medals silver or gold, it would give them a comfortable boost heading into Tokyo.
Less than 300 points separate three of the teams currently just in the top-15 via points: Chileans Marco and Esteban Grimalt, Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, and Swiss Adrian Heidrich and Mirco Gerson.
The Grimalts and Latvians have a small bit of cushion, but it’s Heidrich and Gerson that will be most fascinating to watch over the next few months. They did all they needed to do in Doha to leap frog Canadians Sam Pedlow and Sam Schachter by a mere 20 points for the 15th and final spot. That final spot will be one of the most interesting storylines in Cancun, as it’ll be likely to shift from one country to another almost every tournament, which is why the Bubble will be so dang interesting – and tense.
Not that you'll ever see that tension on Cherif and Ahmed. They're relaxed yet hungry, not looking behind at the teams on their heels, but the ones they're trying to catch. They aren't simply trying to survive this Olympic race, but barrel into Tokyo full steam ahead.
Cancun will present the next opportunity to do just that.
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