Snow volleyball hopes to stake claim in Winter Olympics
Beach volleyball is moving to the mountains and swapping its sand for snow.
A spinoff of the sun-splashed sport familiar to Summer Olympic fans and seaside frolickers, snow volleyball is spreading from the Alps to the Andes and making a run at the Winter Games. If all goes well, volleyball officials say, their sport would be the first to appear in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
''Our key message is to be the No. 1 family sport in the world,'' Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the International Volleyball Federation, said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''I think it fits perfectly to our plan.''
Itself an offshoot of the more traditional indoor game, beach volleyball has grown into one of biggest attractions of the Summer Games, thanks no doubt to the bikini and boardshorts uniforms and the party atmosphere.
Now the FIVB wants a piece of the Winter Olympics, and it sees snow volleyball as the way in. With a European tour already established , volleyball officials have set out an agenda that would bring the new snow sport to Asia, Argentina and the United States with an eye toward approval as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Beijing Games.
''They want to push it ultimately to the Winter Olympics,'' said Martin Kaswurm, whose company manages the Snow Volleyball European Tour. ''It's not something we put into the mouths of the FIVB. It's something they had as a goal themselves.''
The continental circuit, which kicks off this weekend in the Czech ski resort of Spindleruv Mlyn, was officially sanctioned by volleyball's European governing body for the first time last winter. Azevedo said the goal is to have a world tour next year and a fully-fledged world championship in 2019. A spot in the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne - where the FIVB has its headquarters - is also on the federation's radar.
From there, snow volleyball could apply for status as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Azevedo hopes to have at least an informal display at the Winter Games next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, even if it's just stringing up a net in a plaza somewhere.
''We definitely want to be there and show people what snow volleyball is like,'' he said. ''Being really conservative, in order to climb this mountain step by step, I think the Olympics in 2026.''
While Olympic ice hockey and field hockey have different rules, different equipment and different governing bodies, snow volleyball is almost identical to the beach game. The tactics and rules are also similar to the two-a-side beach sport, and many of the competitors come from beach volleyball.
''Basically, we've just changed the surface,'' Kaswurm said. ''They only thing different is that they wear soccer shoes.''
The atmosphere also resembles beach volleyball, with disc jockeys cranking out music and cheerleaders - in lederhosen instead of bikinis - pumping up the crowd .
''Music, it's inside our DNA, man,'' Azevedo said.
Usually there is a hot tub courtside, and traditionally the winners will jump in after their matches to celebrate (and warm up).
''If you're brave enough and have your swimsuit - or not - you can just jump in. And with the drinks and other friends you can enjoy the view on the center court and all the mountains around,'' said Bobb Kufa, the 2016 Czech beach champion. ''Pure happiness.''
Austrian national champion Flo Schnetzer said the crowd especially loves the post-match hot tub celebration.
''The people laugh when they see people in their underwear jumping into the whirlpool,'' he said. ''It's so much fun to play in such an amazing atmosphere and to play in such an amazing place. The crowd is really crazy; they love it. They like to party and they like to celebrate in the mountains.''
But playing on a mountain has its own challenges.
Mostly, because the snow is slicker than sand there is more of a premium on players who can read and react quickly than on tall ones who can block. It's also easier to jump on the compacted snow, so shorter players can be more effective blockers and height is less of an advantage.
''Snow volleyball is for smart and flexible players,'' Kufa said. ''All the moves are much slower. That means you have to be smarter - especially in defense. You have to decide the direction you want to go, and that's all. You can't take it back - otherwise you find yourself on your back with the shoes up to the air.''
The thinner air also slows the players down.
''You can really feel it,'' Schnetzer said. ''It's really intense after just a short time. So you need to be physically really well prepared to be able to play on the mountains.''
And let's not forget the cold.
''It is a mountain, so you should be ready for weather changes and be prepared for all kinds of weather,'' Kufa said.
So far, the tournaments have been scheduled at resorts - with free admission - as something for the skiers to watch when they need a break. For the players at an event in Iran earlier this month, it was a quick diversion from the Kish Island beach event scheduled the following week.
That's one big advantage snow volleyball has over other sports trying to join the Olympic program: It already has a strong federation and a ready pool of potential players from the beach game, including 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Martins Plavins of Latvia and the top beach players from several European countries.
Three-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 gold medalist, said he would wait until his beach career is over to give it a try.
''I would be too afraid of hurting myself,'' said Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but has spent most of his life near the beaches of Florida and California. ''The snow probably would be pretty slippery.''
Dalhausser said anything that gets people to watch and play any form of volleyball is good for the sport. And once fans see snow volleyball, Azevedo said, they will be hooked - just like those who have come to follow the beach version every four years at the Summer Olympics.
''Both of them are two parties,'' Azevedo said. ''But if you organize a party in your home, it's probably different than a party I am organizing in my home. So, there are two different energies. But I can tell you you are going to enjoy both of them.''