Tri Bourne mentioned it almost as a side to the conversation: USA Volleyball is tinkering with the idea of having an Olympic trial for Tokyo 2020.
We were sitting at his kitchen table in his Redondo Beach condo – our “Bourne on the Beach Studios,” as we now affectionately dub our recording site for SANDCAST – with Kelly Claes, our guest that week.
I piped up. The Summer Olympics, which have included beach volleyball since the 1996 Atlanta Games, have been my favorite sporting event for as long as I can remember. I like them more than the Super Bowl, the Masters, March Madness, Stanley Cup, World Series – everything. The Olympics were, as they are to the vast majority of Americans, my first and only experience with beach volleyball prior to moving to Florida. So the mention of a potential trial, the method by which most athletes qualify to represent the U.S. every four years, was a bit of a thrill to me.
Bourne and Claes hate it.
You can listen to their full reactions on the podcast, but they can be synthesized to this: They think athletes should have to earn it, to grind through the FIVB circuit and climb the international ladder as Bourne had to do. Nothing as momentous should be whittled down to a single tournament.
I agree and I don’t.
No, an Olympic bid should not be divvied out based on a single tournament. We’ve seen how that goes. In 1996, two U.S. teams came out of an Olympic trial in Baltimore, while one, Sinjin Smith-Carl Henkel, was earned via the FIVB circuit.
I’m a proponent of the idea that an Olympic spot can be earned both internationally and domestically, but there’s a glaring issue with the concept of a single tournament qualifier: What if one of our best American players gets hurt? What if they’re sick? What if they simply have a rough day and fall to an inferior team?
Should an event that rolls around every four years be decided upon a single tournament?
No, for this exact scenario played out in ’96, during the trials, which were held in Baltimore. Adam Johnson and Randy Stoklos, the No. 2 seed, beat Canyon Ceman and Lee LeGrande 15-3, Sean Fallowfield and Kevin Martin 15-0, Brent Frohoff and Ricci Luyties 15-8, and Carlos Briceno and Jeff Williams 15-4 to earn a ticket to the finals, where they’d have to win just one of the next possible two matches to earn their Olympic bid.
Thirty seconds before their first final, against Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh, Stoklos hit a jump serve and landed on a ball, tweaking his ankle to the point that, as Johnson said, “the next day he could barely even walk.”
They lost to “The Mikes” 15-7, and the next day managed to score just three in their second Olympic qualifying match to Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes.
They would not be going to Atlanta.
“That injury cost us, I believe, a spot on the team,” Johnson said. “I believe we were going to be one of the two teams.”
Perhaps. Perhaps not. But one sprained ankle, in one event, should never be a potential determining factor over whether a team – the No. 2 in the world at that point, behind eventual gold medalists Kiraly and Steffes – should earn an Olympic bid.
So no, a one-stop trial should never happen.
But there is a way to keep one-half of our Olympic bids home.
The Gold Series.
I’m on board with Bourne and Claes that the international circuit should be required for at least one bid. There’s a certain undeniable merit to proving yourself on the FIVB. At the moment, that would undoubtedly go to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena who, and I really don’t care what argument you’d like to make here, are the best team in the world.
But for the rest, what if the Gold Series actually meant something more than a little boost in prize money and a glittery name?
What if it had the potential to decide who represents our country in beach volleyball’s version of the Super Bowl?
The primary reason that there was a trial in the first place in 1996 was the fact that the players didn’t want to travel overseas to play on what was then an inferior tour.
Why should the U.S., far and away the most dominant country with the world’s best tour and the world’s best prize money, play in countries they don’t want to play in, for worse money, on a worse tour, to qualify for an event that most didn’t want in the first place?
“It was a huge push. There was going to be a power struggle. It was the AVP against the FIVB,” Johnson said. “As soon as we said ‘We’re going to the Olympics’ and agreed to that, we became a satellite tour, because we used to be able to say that we had the best players on the planet, on our Tour, which was true. But as soon as we had to start going overseas to qualify for the Olympics, now that tour can say they have the best in the world on that tour.”
Johnson, and the rest of the Americans, have been proven prescient. The Olympics, and by extension the FIVB, now rules beach volleyball, not the AVP.
The Gold Series as an Olympic qualifier can combat that.
Currently, there are three Gold Series events per year: New York, Manhattan, Chicago. The points from each event would be accrued no different than FIVB Olympic qualifying events: They will be put in their own separate “Olympic qualifying” pot, as a team, not individuals.
The American team with the most Gold Series points after two years of the Olympic qualification process will earn the American bid. The American team with the most FIVB points will earn the international bid.
Three per year, in my mind, though, isn’t enough. Eight – four per year – will likely get a more accurate assessment of who the top American team is. (Ten is probably the perfect number, though in a perfect world, beach volleyball players would also be making millions like any other professional athlete.)
With the possibility that an Olympic bid could be attainted domestically, our top talent will be more inclined to stay at home. When I spoke to Summer Ross last season, I asked her what she would do if the Manhattan Beach Open conflicted with a five-star FIVB. She didn’t hesitate.
She’d be overseas.
That’s a problem.
But if Manhattan served as a potential Olympic qualifier? With increased prize money? I can’t answer for Ross, but I don’t think we’d see a mass exodus of American teams, as we do with near every five-star event that conflicts with the FIVB (see: San Francisco), heading overseas.
Teams, too, are more likely to stay together, knowing that as soon as the Olympics process begins, points can only be accrued via team, not the individual cobbling-together of points. In my mind, this presents a vastly improved product for the fans, as they now have teams to root for, and talk about the sport would no longer focus on petty partner point-grabbing drama, but which team might be able to make moves up the Olympic ladder.
It would be a surprise to me if sponsors didn’t jump at the opportunity to put their name on an “Olympic trial” every couple months. They know, just as we do, that beach volleyball is a quadrennial sport, making a blip on the radar every four years before disappearing into its coastal niche. They also know that the Summer Olympics are one of the most marketable, profitable events with which to align themselves.
Is it a perfect system? Of course not. What we would do with international players like Ricardo and Chaim Schalk, Piotr Marciniak and Rafu Rodriguez-Betran, I’m not so sure. If the Gold Series were, indeed, Olympic qualifiers, there couldn’t be an international influence.
That’s a hole in the argument for which I currently don’t have an answer.
All I know is this: The AVP needs to keep its top talent at home. In 1996, when there was a trial, just two times, Smith-Henkel and Briceno-Williams, played regularly on the FIVB.
The rest, which comprised the most elite American teams, stayed home.