Entering the Tokyo Olympics, Brazil’s men’s volleyball team and China’s women’s volleyball team were poised to excel in their respective brackets.
Brazil’s men’s side won the Rio 2016 gold medal after losing in the gold-medal match in back-to-back Olympics; then, the squad proceeded to win the 2019 FIVB World Cup after a dominating undefeated run. China’s women’s side, on the other hand, was the gold medal-winning team in the women’s division in Rio 2016. They won back-to-back FIVB World Cups, with four of their players receiving individual tournament awards, including star Zhu Ting winning a second consecutive MVP award.
For good reason, these two teams were heavy favorites. But in this wildly unpredictable, sometimes mind-boggling Olympic Games, where the outcome of even the most lopsided matchups is – at best – clear as mud, it seems only fitting that neither won.
China’s women’s volleyball team was eliminated in the preliminaries, not even making it to knockout play. Brazil’s men’s team was eliminated in the bronze-medal match, after a 3-1 loss to ROC, then proceeded to lose again in the bronze-medal match.
A new year meant new champions. On the women’s side, it was the United States winning its first-ever gold medal, and on the men’s side, it was France doing the same.
Olympic volleyball lived up to the hype in the Tokyo Olympics. Here’s how it all went down.
France men’s volleyball entered the tournament as an underdog to win gold -- unsurprising, when you consider the country's history in the sport: before Saturday, France's best Olympic result in men's volleyball was an eighth-place finish in 1988.
Few people would’ve been shocked to hear that they would make it to knockout play, as they were ranked fourth in the field. But advancing all the way to the gold-medal match, which they did in historic fashion, surprised everyone outside of their locker room.
France began to garner attention in the preliminaries, as it began with a 2-0 start, beating both the United States and Tunisia in 3-0, shutout fashion. France also managed to beat ROC in the prelims, but they lost matches to Argentina and reigning gold medalists Brazil, making their tournament run even more impressive. One loss would send them packing; instead, they went 3-0, beating Poland 3-2, then Argentina 3-0, then ROC – who had beaten France in the prelims – by a final score of 3-2.
France and ROC played a thrilling gold-medal match that lasted five sets, but the French prevailed and won its first-ever men’s volleyball gold medal, thanks to outstanding performances by outside hitter Earvin Ngapeth, Jean Patry and Trevor Clevenot.
Better yet, head coach Laurent Tillie, who said he would step down and retire following the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, got to coach his way to a gold medal in his last Olympic Games.
Team USA entered the women's volleyball knockout stages on a hot streak, after having shown it belongs on the world's biggest stage in the preliminary rounds. The United States had its way with Argentina and China, its first two opponents, beating both teams 3-0. It moved on to beat Turkey and Italy in the prelims, losing only one match to ROC before moving onto the quarterfinals. The Americans kept rolling from thereon out; first, they the Dominican Republic in the quarterfinals, then they beat Serbia in the semifinals.
The win over Serbia clinched the United States at least a silver medal, something the U.S. has accomplished before -- but not frequently. In the past nine Olympic Games, dating back to 1984, the U.S. has won three silver medals, two bronze medals and failed to medal four times. Team USA had never won a gold medal in its entire Olympic history, dating back to 1964.
That all changed on Sunday afternoon in Tokyo, when the United States faced a talented opponent in Brazil. Brazil had come into the game with a quarterfinals win over ROC, a semifinals win over Korea and an undefeated record in the preliminaries, giving the squad one more Olympic victory than the United States.
But the USA came in with experience, having faced Team Brazil roughly two months ago in the finals of the 2021 women’s Volleyball Nations League. USA won that game, giving it a non-Olympic gold. The experience gave the U.S. everything it needed to take on Brazil once more in the Olympics, where it would eventually claim its first-ever gold medal in decisive fashion, sweeping Brazil 3-0. Andrea Drews and Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, the United States' top scorers, combined for 29 points in the gold-medal match.