Challenged by its beach offshoot, volleyball has sharpened up since Atlanta, swapping its white ball for a multicolored one, creating a new position (the libero, a back-row defensive specialist) and revamping its scoring system. Under the old rules, only the serving team could score; if the receiving team won a rally, it gained the serve. Now the scoreboard ticks over after every point.
Volleyball superpower Italy have won the last three world championships, yet never claimed Olympic gold. They'll have to get past Yugoslavia, the bronze medalists in 1996 (defending Olympic champions the Netherlands have been in the doldrums). Russia are another threat, as are Cuba, Brazil and the U.S.
The Cuban women have formed one of the great teams in sport for the past decade and are shooting for a third consecutive Olympic gold medal. The only teams that look capable of shocking them are Russia, winner of four Olympic gold medals since 1964, China, and Atlanta bronze medalists Brazil.
WHEN TO WATCH
- Men's final Oct .1
- Women's final Sept. 30
Beach volleyball will be boosted as a medal sport in the 10,400-seat stadium on Sydney's Bondi Beach. Teams of two throw themselves about with abandon -keeping the ball from touching the sand on their side of the 2.43-m-high net-and revealing ample suntanned flesh in the process.
Australia's fourth-ranked Julien Prosser and Lee Zahner won top seeding, although they have yet to beat top-ranked world champs Emanuel Rego and Jose Loiola of Brazil.
Bondi might be an Australian icon, but to the all-conquering Brazilian team it might just as well be Rio. World champions Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede may wind up playing off for the gold against com patriots Adriana Samuel and Sandra Pires, though top-seeded Atlanta-bronzed Aussies Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook could also strike gold on Bondi's sands.
When To Watch Men's final Sept. 26 Women's final Sept. 25