A cumulative crowd of 425,000 fans gathered in London in 2012 to watch what was beach volleyball’s fifth appearance at an Olympic Games. The scenes in the British capital were a far cry from the sport’s modest beginnings at the early decades of the 20th century.
Volleyball – from which the beach variation later derived – can be traced back to 1895, when American William G Morgan created a less physical version of basketball. It took a further 20 years for beach volleyball to evolve, the beaches of Waikiki in Hawaii providing the perfect platform. The sport quickly spread across to Italy, Russia, India and the rest of Europe thanks to American Extradition Forces, and again when troops travelled to Europe in the 1940s.
The sport enjoyed its greatest acceleration in America during the Great Depression of the 1930s, not least because it was cheap to play and offered people a chance to escape their troubles and head to the beach.
The first two-man version of the sport was played in Santa Monica, California. The same US state also hosted the first two-man tournament in 1947.
California became a real hotbed for beach volleyball, which quickly became as much a part of the local lifestyle as surfing. The Beatles were once photographed passing a ball around during a visit to California on tour while even Marilyn Monroe gave it a namecheck; put simply, it was cool.
In the 1960s, President Kennedy attended the first official volleyball event in Sorrento Beach, Los Angeles. California then hosted its first commercially sponsored tournament in 1974, which lead to further professional tournaments and even a sponsored tour in 1980, which eventually turned national.
The popularity of beach volleyball spread to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the first international exhibition was hosted in 1986. A year later, the famous Copacabana coastline staged the first international FIVB-sanctioned tournament, which sparked a succession of further competitions all over the world.
Beach volleyball enjoyed a defining moment in 1994 when it as officially recognised as an Olympic discipline by the IOC. Two years later, in Atlanta, 24 men’s teams and 18 women’s teams competed for Olympic medals on Atlanta Beach in front of sell-out crowds.
Four years after the overwhelming success of its Olympic debut, beach volleyball became an even bigger hit on Bondi Beach during the Sydney Games. Athletes from USA and Brazil, the two countries that had done so much to develop the sport, dominated the competition, just as they did in Athens in 2004.
By 2008, in Beijing, the event was extended over 14 days of action (it had been six in Atlanta, 10 in Sydney and 12 in Athens). At London 2012, the beach volleyball tournament was played in the shadow of iconic venues such as Big Ben and the London Eye and the players fully lived up to the drama of the occasion. The Americans enjoyed continued success, with American duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor winning an incredible third straight Olympic gold in the women’s competition.
With the focus now shifting to Rio in 2016, there is every reason to expect beach volleyball to enjoy its most spectacular Olympics yet.