27 Apr 2018
Two of the most popular sports on the Olympic programme – basketball and volleyball – each have their origins in the US state of Massachusetts, where they were devised by two pioneering physical education teachers in the 19th century.
Basketball was founded by one James A. Naismith, who was born on 6 November 1861 in Almonte, in the Canadian province of Ontario. A student of theology at McGill University in Montreal, he excelled at gymnastics, lacrosse and Canadian football. After completing his studies, he moved to the American state of Massachusetts and took over as the head of the PE department at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in the town of Springfield.
It was there that he came up with a new indoor sport designed to keep his students occupied during the long winter months. He could hardly have imagined how it would one day achieve global popularity.
Following a few experiments and much trial and error, he came up with five basic rules for the game:
1. Only the hands may be used to play the ball, which should be big and light;
2. Players cannot run with the ball. This was due to the restricted size of gym halls and the fact that Naismith wanted his students to exercise self-control;
3. Players are not allowed to shoulder, hold, push, trip or strike their opponents;
4. Any player may take possession of the ball at any time;
5. The basket must be raised high off the ground.
A few months before his death in 1939, Naismith gave a radio interview in which he described the very first match played by his students, back in December 1891.
“I called the boys to the gym, I showed them two peach baskets I had nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team's peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began,” he recalled.
However, as Naismith also revealed, there were teething problems. “The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several had black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder.”
The chaos prompted Naismith to fine-tune his rules. “The most important thing was that running with the ball was absolutely forbidden,” he explained. “We tried again with the new rules and there were no injuries.”
There were 13 new rules in total. Published in the Springfield College school newspaper on 15 January 1892, most of them are still in use today, in some form or other.
Naismith was 75 when he saw his sport make its Olympic debut in Berlin in 1936, and he was accorded the honour of throwing the jump ball at the opening match between France and Estonia. The tournament was held on outdoor courts and was won by the USA, who beat Canada 19-8 in a final played in very muddy conditions following prolonged heavy rain. The sport’s inventor was also asked to present the medals.
Over the following two decades, basketball’s growth was exponential. The USA’s professional basketball league, the NBA, was founded in 1946, while the first International Basketball Federation (FIBA) men’s world championships were held in 1950, and the women’s three years later.
The USA won every Olympic tournament through to Munich 1972, when the USSR beat them to gold. Yugoslavia would take the title at Moscow 1980, while the Soviets returned to the top of the podium in Seoul eight years later. Professional athletes were admitted in most sports at Barcelona 1992, where the USA’s all-star Dream Team blew away the opposition and re-established American supremacy on the court.
Women’s basketball was added to the Olympic programme at Montreal 1976. The USSR won the first two gold medals in the event, before the USA embarked on a victorious streak which has only once been interrupted – by the “Unified Team” which competed in Barcelona in 1992 (as a temporary successor to the USSR).
The sport continues to experiment with exciting new formats; 3x3 basketball, a fast-paced variation of the game, debuted at the Youth Olympic Games Singapore 2010 and will join the official programme at Tokyo 2020.
Volleyball founder inspired by Naismith
William G. Morgan did for volleyball what his peer Naismith did for basketball. Born in New York on 23 January 1870, he enrolled to study at Springfield College, where he met Naismith. And in 1895, he too became a PE director with the YMCA, in the town of Holyoke, 16 kilometres from Springfield.
“His leadership was enthusiastically accepted, and his classes grew in numbers,” states the biography of Morgan on the website of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB). “He came to realise that he needed a certain type of competitive recreational game in order to vary his programme. Basketball, a sport that was beginning to develop, seemed to suit young people, but it was necessary to find a less violent and less intense alternative for the older members.”
Taking inspiration from Naismith and from tennis, he dreamed up an indoor sport that would keep his students busy in winter. In its early days, it was called Mintonette. “In search of an appropriate game, tennis occurred to me, but this required rackets, balls, a net and other equipment, so it was eliminated, but the idea of a net seemed a good one,” said Morgan.
“We raised it to a height of about six feet, six inches (1.98m) from the ground, just above the head of an average man. We needed a ball, and among those we tried was a basketball bladder, but this was too light and too slow. We therefore tried the basketball itself, which was too big and too heavy.”
Morgan asked a local factory to make a ball for his new sport. Covered with leather, it had a rubber inner tube, measured between 63.5 and 68.6 centimetres in circumference and weighed between 252 and 336 grams. Morgan got together with his colleagues to write the sport’s first 10 rules, one of which was that the ball could not touch the ground on either side of the net. In early 1896, Morgan was invited to provide a demonstration at a conference of YMCA PE directors in Springfield. After selecting two teams of five players, he explained to his audience that though the game was designed for indoors, it could also be played out in the open air. He added that the object of the game was to keep the ball in movement over a high net, from one side to the other.
Mintonette becomes volleyball
Among the audience that day was a certain Professor Alfred T. Haisted, who, having observed the ball’s flight closely, proposed that the name of the sport be changed to “volley ball”.
Morgan’s invention evolved in the years that followed and was included on the programme at the Olympic Games Paris 1924 as a demonstration sport. Forty years later in Tokyo, by which time it had become “volleyball”, it was included on the official Olympic programme for the first time.
After undergoing a series of modifications, it also became one of the most widely played sports in the world. As well as becoming a six-a-side sport, those changes included the introduction of the three-touch rule, the fifth-set tie-break and sets played to 25 points. The rule stipulating that only the serving team could score points was also dropped, enabling the receiving team to also score.
Another innovation was the introduction of the “libero”, a player who wears a different-coloured shirt to the rest of their team and who plays a defensive role, without being allowed to serve, block or attempt to block or complete an attack hit if, at the moment of contact, the ball is entirely higher than the top of the net.
Beach volleyball, the popular two-player variation of the sport, was first played in California in the 1920s. Welcomed into the FIVB fold in 1987, it was a demonstration sport at Barcelona 1992 and was added to the official Olympic programme at Atlanta 1996.
Three-time Olympic beach volleyball champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings of the USA both graduated from the indoor game, while Karch Kiraly won two volleyball golds with the USA in 1984 and 1988, before winning another gold on the sand in 1996.
Like basketball, the two forms of volleyball are now loved around the world, and played and watched by millions at grassroots and elite level. Sports lovers around the world owe a debt of thanks to Messrs Naismith and Morgan, whose creativity and innovation made lasting contributions to the world of sport and the Olympic story.