U.S. spiked in volleyball qualifying

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Picture this: The United States is putting together its top-of-the-line basketball team, ultimately to be dubbed "The Dream Team" by some publicity genius, and the rules for gathering up the best players we have to offer, men named Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, work against accomplishing that task.

Instead of going through some sort of selection process and/or tryout camp, imagine the players who eventually ended up as Dream Teamers having to leave their pro clubs during the NBA season to gather up points in order to qualify for an Olympic Trials situation later on.

While Jordan is off practicing his skills in a weekend round-robin in Sofia, Bulgaria, Bird and Magic are gathering up points by going 2-on-5 against a gaggle of men on Fiji.

This, in effect, is what the people who think they run volleyball worldwide are laying on the best beach volleyballers extant as the relatively new sport wends its way toward becoming a medal sport in next year's Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Volleyball, the team sport, is an American invention dating back more than 100 years. The two-person variety has been where all the growth and popularity have come from lately, as attested to by television, NBC and CBS both holding contracts with pro tours for men and women.

The Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) has worked for a dozen years to regulate and guide the growth of beach volleyball while establishing a tour to the point where presently it probably contains nine of the top 10 two-man teams in the world. The Federation International of Volley-Ball (FIVB) says that doesn't matter. In order to qualify for your country's Olympic team, tandems must take part in some of its tour tournaments.

The FIVB is trying to establish its tour, enlarging from six to 18 tournaments this year, by going over the backs of the established AVP tour. Of its 18 Grand Prix tournaments, only two are in the United States, including an event in Clearwater, Fla., last weekend.

It's in direct conflict with an AVP event, as is the case in 13 of 18 occasions, so, naturally, two-time Olympic gold medalist (in team v-ball) Karch Kiraly and the rest of the top guns -- Mike Dodd, Kent Steffes, Mike Whitmarsh, Randy Stoklos or Randy Johnson -- will not be there.

As Kiraly (Ka-rye) puts it, "The Olympic qualification system as it is currently designed not only will keep the best players in the U.S. from competing in Atlanta, it seems to be set up to legitimize and bolster a tour [FIVB] looking to weaken the competition, the AVB tour."

To date at least, both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the governing body of the sport in this country, the U.S. Volleyball Association, have given qualified approval to this strange Olympic qualifying formula set down by the FIVB.

About now, you've probably had it with another alphabet organization war, particularly if you've followed boxing and tennis over the years. And, remember, to this point we haven't even mentioned that all this takes place under the aegis of the IOC (International Olympic Committee).

Essentially, it comes down to this: Kiraly, all the players of the AVP and anyone with any common sense favor open competition leading to a country's Olympic team.

"Having people from other countries dictating to the U.S. how it will select its team is ludicrous," says Kiraly. Particularly when these qualifying rules weren't made known until a couple of months ago just before the international governing body of the sport came out with its tour schedule.

Forget that this is simply another case of allegedly greedy pro players sitting out while the courts and lawyers argue the points of contention. Actually, the 200 members of the players association favor free and open competition while it is the international that appears to favor a restricted and elitist system.

NBC paid more than a $450 million rights fee for the Atlanta Games and its contract with beach volleyball proves it sees the sport as one of its ratings winners in its Olympic inventory. It (and sponsors of the sport) will not sit idly by if the United States ends up not being represented by its high-profile and best players.

As everyone knows, though, international governing bodies in sports are often tough nuts to crack. For, as the inimitable columnist Red Smith once said, "The only thing wrong with amateur sports is they are run by amateurs."

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