Steve Timmons, the back-row bomber of the U.S. volleyball team, needed a haircut. So early last week he went to the barbershop in the Olympic Village and entrusted an unknown stylist with the most distinctive flattop in sportsdom. "Give me the Marine cut," Timmons directed. "I've got a battle tomorrow."
Timmons and his teammates ended up battling all week. They fought with each other at practice. They fought with Brazil in the semifinals, the two teams tossing obscenities at each other across the net. And, finally, they fought the Soviet Union on Sunday for the gold.
Spurred on by Timmons, who led the U.S. with 38 kills, and Karch Kiraly, who had 26, the U.S. beat the Soviet Union 13-15, 15-10, 15-4, 15-8, to win its second straight gold and raise the possibility that this may be the best volleyball team ever. "The U.S. team is on a level by itself," said the '84 U.S. women's coach, Arie Selinger. "Some teams are always on vacation on some aspects of their game, but this team is a new dimension in volleyball."
Unfortunately, the same can not be said of the U.S. women's team, which avoided last place thanks to a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over South Korea last Thursday. The women's gold went to the Soviets, who rallied from a 0-2 deficit to beat Peru in the final, while the world-champion Chinese had to settle for the bronze.
October 9, 1988
The U.S. men wanted to meet the Soviets in the final, but not because they didn't get a chance to play the U.S.S.R. in Los Angeles. Before the Seoul Games began the Americans figured, quite rightly, that they had squelched any doubts about their legitimacy by beating the Soviets in the finals of both the World Cup in 1985 and the world championship in '86. Ever since coach Marv Dunphy took over the U.S. team in the middle of 1985, it had gone 25-10 in matches against the U.S.S.R, including a 7-2 record this year.
The Americans wanted to play the Soviets in the Olympic final because, as Kiraly put it, "I think we would be flat against Argentina [the Soviet Union's semifinal opponent]. We play better against a team we respect more."
The U.S. players had gotten to know the Soviets well, not only by playing them, but also by carousing with them. Four years ago the U.S. lost a match to the U.S.S.R. in Tokyo. Later that evening, the team visited the Soviets in their hotel rooms and a party ensued. Donning kimonos and wrapping the sashes around their heads like samurai warriors, the Americans and Soviets tossed back vodkas into the wee hours. At one point, Soviet hitter Yuri Panchenko turned to the U.S. team's captain and said, "Kiraly, you are the world's greatest volleyball player."
Kiraly shot back: "No, Panchenko, you are the world's greatest volleyball player." This exchange was repeated often, and each time it was resolved with a vodka toast. Na Zdorovie.
The U.S. does not toast every team it plays. In the semis in Seoul, Kiraly & Co. faced Brazil and quickly won the first two games, 15-3 and 15-5. When the Americans fell behind in the third game, the Brazilians started taunting them with obscenities. Not to be outdone, the U.S. players retaliated with a few choice words of their own, then finished off the Brazilians 15-11. The match ended with Kiraly and Brazil's Antonio Gouveia screaming at one another. "It was not exactly the essence of the Olympic spirit," Kiraly conceded.
The tension had actually begun to build for the U.S. team during practice two days earlier when Timmons and setter Jeff Stork, among others, engaged in a shouting match. "A civil war in practice is nothing new for us," Timmons said later. "Sometimes we scream at each other. That's how we get it done."
Earlier in the tournament, the U.S. had managed to get it done without any verbal pyrotechnics. After beating Japan 3-0 and the Netherlands 3-1, the Americans found themselves down 0-2 against Argentina. As Kiraly's wife, Janna, watched nervously in the stands, a Soviet spectator handed her a friendship pin with the Soviet and American flags on it. Soon afterward the U.S. rallied to win the final three games, 15-4, 17-15, 15-7. "When we came back to win the match," said Janna, "everyone got real superstitious about it. All week. Karch kept asking, 'Got your pin on?' 'Got your pin on?" "
About the same time the Soviet Samaritan arrived on the scene, so did Stork, the team's regular setter. He had hurt his back before the Olympics and had missed the first two matches, but Dunphy decided to put him in midway through the Argentina match. Stork served for four straight points and was a major factor in the U.S. turnaround.
The Americans cruised through their remaining matches with France, Tunisia and Brazil and were so confident about the final against the Soviets that many of them packed on Saturday so they would have time to celebrate on Sunday. Earlier on Saturday, Janna Kiraly's pin disappeared. "We were out shopping and I lost it," she said. "Everyone was scrambling to find it." Which, to everyone's relief, they did.
The Soviets tested the U.S.'s resolve early when they took the first game. But Dunphy wasn't worried. He felt he had the Soviets right where he wanted them: With the 6'5" Timmons matched up against Jaroslav Antonov, the Soviet Union's 6'6" lefthanded hammer. Though Timmons wasn't able to close Antonov down, he kept him from setting the Soviets on fire. Meanwhile, the Americans were an emotional flambeau. In the second game, Kiraly, Mr. Intensity if not Mr. Congeniality, received his second yellow card of the afternoon for his animated protest of a call. "That definitely took me out of contention for Sportsman of the Tournament," he said.
The supercharged Americans throttled the Soviets in the second and third games. Then they fell behind 4-0 in the fourth, but called timeout and began to climb back. With the score 6-6, Kiraly rose in the air—he has a vertical leap of 41'½"—to block Antonov. As he went up. Kiraly spread his arms wide in what he called "a split-eagle block." Antonov slammed a lefthanded screamer that struck Kiraly's right hand, and the ball fell back over the net. Point U.S.A.
After a Soviet timeout, Timmons flew in from the back to hit another of his sizzling spikes and give the U.S. a two-point lead. It was over soon afterward.
Despite their decisive win, the victors remained respectful of the vanquished. "It's sad that in an hour or two, four years of work comes to that," Kiraly said. "They're a bunch of nice guys."
Soviet Union, you are the best team in the world.
No. United States, you are the best team in the world.