The history of Olympic volleyball

6 min By WengYee Hu

Making its debut appearance as a demonstration sport way back at the 1924 Games in Paris, volleyball has come a long way in the Olympics.

It’s now one of the most popular sports at the Games, and comprises three variations across both the Olympics and Paralympics: indoor, beach and sitting. Here’s a quick guide to the history of Olympic volleyball.

The 1920s: Early beginnings and false starts

Olympic volleyball’s illustrious story began at the 1924 Paris Olympics, when the USA performed a one-off demonstration event. The sport had been booming in popularity since its invention some 30 years earlier, when it was created in the USA as a relaxed alternative to basketball. Unfortunately, it was only a fleeting appearance for the indoor sport, which would have to wait another 40 years to be admitted to the Olympic programme.

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

The 1950s and early ‘60s: Campaigning and victory

During the 40-year wait, the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball was founded in 1947. Having its own official body for indoor, beach and grass events boosted volleyball’s chances of becoming an Olympic sport.

Two years later, in 1949, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised volleyball as a non-Olympic sport. Finally, in 1957, during the 53rd IOC session, the votes were cast and volleyball was finally made an Olympic sport.

Volleyball made its Olympic debut at the 1964 Games in Tokyo. Featuring both women’s and men’s events, the sport got off to a strong start, with hosts Japan and the Soviet Union winning the women’s and men’s events, respectively.

All seemed well, until the IOC voted to drop the sport for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Thankfully, after ardent protests, the motion was dropped, and volleyball would indeed get a chance to carry on its burgeoning Olympic legacy at that year’s Games.

The late 1960s: Game-changing years

The format for the 1968 Games was different to today. Originally, all teams played each other in a round-robin tournament, and the final standings were determined by the number of wins, set average and point average.

Unfortunately, there were a number of problems with this system. Most glaringly, that the medallists could be determined before the competition had finished. Subsequently, the spectator interest waned towards the end, after the prizes had been decided.

To combat this, a competition format was designed, which is still in use today. The 12 teams in both women’s and men’s separate events are split into two groups, where every team within the group plays each other once. The top four teams in each group advance to the quarter finals, with winners making it through to the semi-finals, and eventually the top two teams facing each other in the final to battle for gold.

The 1970s: Paralympic volleyball proves itself

With this improved tournament format, indoor volleyball went from strength to strength. Just around the corner, an even bigger development was to come.

After a successful demonstration in Toronto 1976, volleyball was fully introduced into the Paralympic programme in 1980. Initially, the event was contested under both standing and sitting volleyball disciplines, though the standing discipline was removed from the Paralympic programme for the 2004 Games in Athens.

With these new steps being taken, volleyball was expanding its presence as an Olympic discipline.

The 1980s: Politics and boycotts – and one stand-out team

Several high-profile boycotts overshadowed the Olympic Games throughout the 1980s, with a direct impact on medal placings in volleyball. The United States refused to compete at the Moscow Olympics in 1980; the Soviet Union in turn boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984; and future Olympic champions Cuba did not participate in Seoul 1988.

But when athletes were able to compete, one spectacular game in particular stands out. During the 1988 Games, the Soviet Union overturned a two-set deficit against Peru to take the lead. Both teams were ahead several times, and both had match points. The Soviet Union eventually won the gold after an amazing performance by both nations, ensuring the sport’s subsequent skyrocketing profile.

The stars of the 1980s, though, were Iran’s men’s Paralympic volleyball team, who have been ever-present in the event since they began competing in 1988. Iran has appeared in every gold-medal match since 1988, winning six out of eight. Their continued success is testament to their Paralympic programme and determined play.


1990s: Beach time

Entering the 1990s, beach volleyball made its way on to the Olympic calendar. Played outdoors on sand, it appeared as a demonstration sport at the Barcelona Games in 1992 before its official introduction in Atlanta 1996.

That first official tournament included 24 teams for men and 16 for women, and expanded in Sydney 2000 to 24 teams in both competitions. Participating countries could enter two teams for qualifying into the beach competition, which proved particularly effective for two countries in 1996. The men’s final was USA vs USA, and the women’s was Brazil vs Brazil.

The indoor women’s tournament, meanwhile, was dominated by Cuba. Making their first appearance at Barcelona 1992, the Cuban women’s team took gold – and took it again at Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. The talented athletes perhaps could have achieved even more, starting in the previous decade, if not for the country’s 1988 boycott.


The 2000s: Olympic volleyball soars

As the new millennium dawned, the competition intensified across all three sports, with some astounding performances.

For continued success and amazing play, no one can compete with Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. They struck gold three times in consecutive Olympics from 2004 to 2012 in the women’s beach volleyball competition. Maintaining a superb record, their achievements are set to stand for a very long time.

In the same year, in the men’s Paralympic volleyball competition, Bosnia and Herzegovina took gold – a particularly poignant victory as their team consisted of individuals who had been injured during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.

Fantastic crowds and competition continued in Beijing, London and Rio, with volleyball becoming an integral part of the Olympic programme and a major success story since its first foray into the Games back in 1964.

Looking to the future

Going into the 21st century and beyond, volleyball forms a huge part of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with three disciplines across both.

Discover more information about indoor, beach and sitting variations on the Olympic Channel.

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