The rise of volleyball: From humble beginnings to a global sport

Volleyball traces its origins to four different disciplines has gone on to establish itself as one of the biggest sports in the world.

By Naveen Peter
Picture by Getty

For a sport that has been around for over a century, the origin of volleyball traces its roots to a rather humble beginning.

History has it that William G Morgan - who invented the game of volleyball in 1895 - came up with the idea so that people who found basketball’s ‘bumping’ or ‘jolting’ too strenuous could have an alternative physical activity to fall back on.

William G Morgan looked at the sports around and picked the aspects that he thought suited his brief the best.

The ball came from basketball, the net from tennis and the use of hands from handball. While this made up a game of volleyball, it was lent some competitive tone with the introduction of innings - later to be called sets - that was borrowed from baseball.

Morgan, who served as the physical director at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Holyoke, Massachusetts, introduced the sport -- called Mintonette, the original name of volleyball -- at the YMCA Physical Director's Conference a year later at Springfield College, Massachusetts.

Though it was incomplete with no fixed rules and a format to follow, the sport did enough to win over the delegation and soon became a part of YMCA’s wide network throughout the USA with a new name - volley ball (initially it was termed as two words).

A sport that traced its origin to basketball, baseball, tennis and handball - and now estimated to be played by over 800 million globally - had thus been established.

A group of ladies playing a game of volleyball in 1900.
Picture by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The global reach and rules

The coming years saw rules for the game being drawn up as volleyball continued to bank on YMCA’s popularity to go global.

With YMCA societies playing prominent roles in regions like India, China, Europe, South America and Africa, volleyball would soon spread in these regions.

It was in Asia that it gathered steam. By 1913, the growth of the game in the continent was evident as that year saw it being included in the first Far-Eastern Games, organised in Manila.

It was not until 1900 that a specially designed lighter and smaller ball was devised, which opened up a new array of tactical and technical possibilities for the sport.

Rules for playing volleyball kept establishing over the years; points per set changed from 21 to 15 points in 1917, in the following year the number of players per team was set at six and so on.

A few years later, a new offensive way of playing the game — including what we now call setting and spiking — emerged in the Philippines. It was to be called ‘bomba’ or ‘Filipino bomb’, taking a cue from the pace at which the ball landed in the opposition’s court.

The new tactic also meant the rules of volleyball were further refined and standardised, including the scoring system and the rule stipulating a maximum of three hits per team.

However, all through this period, volleyball was largely restricted to only a few regions. Though there were a few national championships in different countries, none had a fixed set of rules as it varied from region to region.

But all this would change in 1947.

Establishment of an international body for volleyball

April 1947 saw the establishment of the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB).

Representatives from 14 nations - Belgium, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Uruguay, the USA and Yugoslavia - met in Paris under the leadership of France’s Paul Libaud to set up the association that would govern volleyball at the international level.

Libaud assumed the role of FIVB's first president, a position he held on to till 1984. The first volleyball World Championships for men was held in 1949 in Prague and in 1952 for women in Moscow.

FIVB has since grown into becoming one of the biggest sporting organisations in the world with 222 affiliated bodies.

While the World Championships continues to be the mega attraction for the game, the FIVB has added events like the FIVB World League, the FIVB World Grand Prix, the FIVB World Cup and the FIVB Grand Champions Cup to its roster over the years, apart from eventually becoming an Olympic sport.

Volleyball at the Olympics

With an international body to look after the sport and its growing popularity, indoor volleyball was granted Olympic status in 1957 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Volleyball made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 1964 Games.

Brazil, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Italy have bagged the most medals in men's Olympic volleyball (six each), with the South American team leading the honours with their three golds and three silvers.

Among the women’s teams, six countries have won the Olympic gold medal in volleyball with the Soviet Union leading the overall medals tally with six (four golds and two silvers).

Japan and the Soviet Union played each of the first four gold medal matches at the Summer Olympics from 1964 to 1980.

Japan won the first-ever final on home soil at Tokyo 1964 while the Soviet Union pipped them to win gold at the 1968 Games and Munich in 1972. Japan then picked their second gold medal at Montreal 1976.

The Soviet Union added two more gold medals to their tally with their volleyball players emerging with victories at Moscow 1980 and Seoul 1988, while China won the first of its two-three medals at Los Angeles 1984 and the second at Athens 2004.

Cuba won three straight golds at Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 while the Brazilian women’s volleyball team became just the third team to win back-to-back golds in the discipline, doing so at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

The United States is the reigning women’s volleyball Olympic champions, having beaten Brazil in the final at Tokyo 2020.

While only six teams played in the women’s category in the 1964 edition of the Games, that number doubled by 1988 and has remained so ever since.

Volleyball heads for the beach

Like its expanded version, even though beach volleyball too can trace its roots back to America, the sport had to wait a bit longer to get into the conscience of a larger community.

Beach volleyball was included in the Olympic programme for the Atlanta Games in 1996, a move that helped take the global reach and popularity of the sport to a new level.

The United States of America, the country from which volleyball originated from, has dominated this event at the Olympics, winning a total of seven gold, two silver and two bronze medals (men and women) so far.

Their Olympic bow was followed by the inaugural FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in 1997.

The event is hosted every alternate year and Brazil has been the most successful country at this event winning a total of 12 gold medals (men and women) so far.


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