On this day, thirty-four years ago, the first-ever FIVB-sanctioned beach volleyball event started in Brazil where American and Brazilian pairs secured nine of the top 10 spots on the iconic Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro.
While the 1987 Ipanema winners Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos were in the midst of dominating the American domestic beach tour from 1982 through 1993, the other semifinal teams of Karch Kiraly/Pat Powers, Renan Dal Zotto/Jose Montanaro and Edinho de Mattos/Bernard Rajzman were indoor standouts.
Four months earlier in Paris, Kiraly and Powers were part of the United States' gold medal team at the indoor 1986 FIVB Volleyball World Championships. Brazil placed fourth in Paris with Zotto, Montanaro and Bernard on the team.
In addition to four American and eight Brazil pairs in the pool play and elimination-formatted event, the 1987 Rio Open also featured three pairs from Argentina, two duos from Italy, and one tandem each from Chile, Japan and Mexico.
Before Los Angeles hosted the first recognised FIVB World Championships in September 1997, Rio’s famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches hosted the unofficial worlds through 1996 for men during February. Women’s play in Rio started in conjunction with the men’s event in 1993 and continued with other tournaments a week after the men in 1995 and 1996.
Kiraly, the only person to win volleyball and beach volleyball Olympic gold medals, said the first event was “staged just on Ipanema. There was a canal, like a border, between Ipanema and Leblon. And they would set that up there every year. It was a great spot along the beach.”
As for the staging of the event, Kiraly said it was “really well organised. And I remember they had a really fun public address announcer with a very deep voice who would get the beach rocking. Randy would put a ball away and he would say, "Stoook-looos." He was really a friendly guy, a great guy. We enjoyed seeing him. We looked forward to seeing him in our few years of attending there.”
Currently coaching the United States women’s volleyball team, Kiraly added that “the stands were just packed. I remember it was so cool. There was one stadium competition court. Maybe one other outside competition court, although that might have just been for warmups.”
Also impressing Kiraly were the entries into the stadium where the “spectator lines were, like, several blocks long, or it was all around the stadium and then down the beach to try to get in. And once a spectator left, I don't think that person could get back in. So that led to really long lines, and nobody wanted to give up their spot.”
Kiraly said the weather “was super-hot. So, the organizers had a firehose that they would use to spray down the crowd between matches or at time outs. And so, the whole process was just awesome. Everybody was begging to be sprayed by the cool water multiple times during the day just to keep cool.”
As for the competition, Kiraly remembered the “great Brazilian teams. Like, there was Bernard who was a huge indoor star. And he played with a guy named Edinho [de Mattos]. And they played a very loose style of volleyball. You could actually go up and slam dunk it. Like, you could open hand tip. That was allowed then. They played very loose setting rules. And after a few years of that, they changed that rule because they tried to bring it more into conformity with the American domestic tour.”
While the American entries “were wearing their normal beach playing shorts or trunks,” Kiraly said there were “lots of guys that played in Speedos. That was a Brazilian thing. It still is a Brazilian thing just when you're hanging out at the beach. So, lots of guys wearing Speedos in terms of the Brazilians.”
In the gold medal match after defeating Brazilian teams in the semifinals, Smith and Stoklos posted a 12-9, 12-5 sideout scoring win over Kiraly and Powers. While Smith and Stoklos were playing in their 80th of 238 all-time events together, Kiraly and Powers were partnering for the first of two times.
“I don't remember the scores,” said Kiraly about the gold medal match, “but I don't think it was close. I think they mowed us down rather good. Obviously, they are the all-time winningest team, Sinjin and Randy. Great, great team. And, of course, Pat and I weren't normal partners. The only two events we ever played together were the 1987 and 1988 Rio events.”
Weeks before the inaugural FIVB beach volleyball event, Kiraly said “I had actually asked if I could play with a great Brazilian indoor player, Renan Dal Zotto. I loved the way he played, and I knew he was a good beach player. I thought it would just be really fun. He's now, of course, the Brazilian indoor men's team head coach. But I thought it would be really fun to play with a partner from Brazil, but that got shut down. The organizers wanted a country versus country format.”
With Smith and Stoklos posting a 5-0 record in the competition, Kiraly and Powers’ only setback in their five matches was to their compatriots in the final. Bronze medal winners Renan and Montanaro's only two losses were to Kiraly/Powers (12-10, 12-7) in the early rounds and Smith/Stoklos (12-5, 9-12, 12-3).
"We loved playing at the beach at the time,” said Renan about playing in the first sanctioned FIVB beach event. “Not only it was great in terms of making us better as players, but it was also a lot of fun. Mentally, it was great to leave a training session indoors and go play at the beach. We played with the volleyball rules, but we knew that the only country that was ahead of the curve at the time was the United States. They had beach-specific rules, an organisation that ran it, and specialised players, including several who had played volleyball before.”
Renan said playing with Montanaro at the first event “was a unique experience. It was something new for us, but we realised we were part of something special and the birth of a new sport. And it was important that us, the players who had a certain reputation for our volleyball careers, were involved to help promote it at the beginning. And I'm happy and proud to see I played a little part in it. I played a few more tournaments with Bernard and to see what beach volleyball is now, a fascinating sport with its own rules, sponsors and great competition and amazing players, it's awesome. We now have two independent sports and it's great that I got to be part of this transition."
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour