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Twenty years later - Atlanta validation for Kiraly & Steffes

Karch Kiraly (pink hat) and Kent Steffes celebrate a gold medal win at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
Lausanne, Switzerland, July 27, 2016 - Twenty years ago today on July 28 on a man-made "beach" south of the Georgia capital of Atlanta, Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes validated the belief that the United States men were the best in the world as the pair won five-straight matches in the 1996 Olympic Games highlighted by a convincing victory over the Mikes (Dodd and Whitmarsh) in the All-American finale.

With Beach Volleyball making its Olympic debut at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Games, Americans dominated the men's competition with three teams finishing among the top five finishers led by the 35-year old Kiraly and 28-year old Steffes.  If you add in John Child and Mark Heese of Canada, North Americans finished 1-2-3 in the inaugural even along with a fifth-place by Carl Henkel and Sinjin Smith of the United States.

Kiraly and Steffes' 12-5, 12-8 gold medal win in 62 minutes came a day after an All-Brazilian women's finale where Sandra Pires and Jackie Silva posted a 12-11, 12-6 win in 69 minutes over compatriots Monica Rodrigues and Adriana Samuel.  The All-American finale also soften the disappointment of women's effort in Atlanta where the United States finished fourth, fifth and ninth at Clayton County International Park in Jonesboro, Georgia.

Although it might be disputed by the Mikes and the Canadians, the real match of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games was the All-American men's quarter-final.  Before dealing with the "greatest match ever played", Kiraly and Steffes opened Olympic play by defeating Andrea Ghiurghi/Nicola Grigolo of Italy 15-7 and Jorg Ahmann/Axel Hager of Germany 15-5 in their first two matches.  To reach the gold medal match, the Americans bested Child and Heese 15-11.

While most events focus on the "final four" matches as the "best of the best", the men's quarterfinal match featuring the American domestic leaders Kiraly and Steffes versus Henkel and Smith ranks as one of the most memorable in the sport's history.  The match pitted two fierce rivals as Smith helped usher Beach Volleyball into the Olympics working with the FIVB and then president Ruben Acosta while Kiraly was the face of the American domestic tour and at odds with international federation about who should control the sport.

It was an unforgettable Beach Volleyball match as Kiraly and Steffes eventually won the 54-minute match 17-15 as there was plenty emotion on the sand and in the grandstands where more than 7,000 crazed fans watched the epic confrontation.  All eyes seemed to be on Kiraly and Smith as Steffes and Henkel were almost seen as spectators.

On the web in "Volleyball Thoughts by Mark Lebedew", here is how the Kiraly vs. Smith rivalry was described.  

"Kiraly and Smith were childhood friends.  The played Volleyball together at UCLA.  As Beach Volleyballers they won together at the age of 19.  In his book Spike! Doug Beal describes Smith as ‘only wanting to play with his friend Karch Kiraly’.  At that point their paths separated; Sinjin stayed on the beach, Karch went in the gym.

"Sinjin became (with Randy Stoklos) the greatest Beach Volleyballer ever.  Karch (with two gold medals) became the greatest Volleyball player ever.  By the time the early 1990’s came around, Karch was back on the beach and Sinjin was past his best.  They were no longer playing together.  Being the competitors they were, both wanted to play the inaugural Olympic Beach Volleyball tournament.  Karch chose the AVP way.  Sinjin chose the FIVB way (cynics suggested because he had no other chance to qualify).

"At some point it became personal.  Karch said that the US players on the FIVB weren’t good enough to compete on the AVP tour and were therefore not worthy representatives of the USA (explicitly agreeing with the cynics).  Sinjin said that the FIVB was the best for world volleyball (explicitly not caring).”

Lebedew concluded his article with the following.

"Sometimes **** happens.  Sometimes **** is made to happen.  I have no clue which scenario led to Karch (and his partner Steffes) meeting Sinjin (and his partner Henkel) in the quarterfinals of that first Olympic tournament.  In the end it doesn’t matter.  Maybe it’s not the greatest match Beach Volleyball match of all time, I really don’t know.  But given the back story and the personalities and the quality of the match there can’t have been many better than this one."

Despite losing to Kiraly and Steffes, Henkel and Smith had an opportunity to reach the semi-finals.  After defeating Joao Brenha and Miguel Maia 15-7 in an opening Atlanta match, the Americans were eliminated from the 1996 Olympics by dropping a 15-13 decision in 70 minutes to the Portuguese pair.  Brenha and Maia lost 15-13 to Dodd and Whitmarsh in a 65-minute semi-final match before dropping a 12-5, 12-8 decision to Child and Heese in the 77-minute bronze medal match.

Twenty years later, Kiraly will be back in Olympic competition coaching the American women's Volleyball team in Rio.  He ended his Beach Volleyball career in 2007 with 144 domestic team titles and three FIVB gold medals.

Steffes retired from competition after playing in two FIVB events in 1999 with Dain Blanton in Argentina and Mexico.  For his career, he won 104 domestic and three international titles.  After his playing days, Steffes obtained a graduate degree in business from Stanford and began working in the financial services industry.

Dodd is still active behind the Beach Volleyball scene in southern California along with having success in the real estate market.  He retired from Beach Volleyball competition in 1997 with 72 domestic and three international titles to his credit.  Whitmarsh, who last played in 2004 and won 25 domestic and three international titles, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning after inhaling car-exhaust fumes in February 2009.

When asked recently about the Olympics, Dodd said he was "the lucky one because after Atlanta I got to work Sydney and Athens for NBC as a broadcaster and then I got to work Beijing and London as a coach.  This year is a strange feeling for me because usually right now I’m getting processed and getting ready to go to the Olympics and this will be the first Olympics since I played that I’ll just be at home watching on TV."
Atlanta 1996 Olympic finalists (left to right) Mike Dodd, Karch Kiraly, Kent Steffes and Mike Whitmarsh

Now retired and active in Beach Volleyball development, Child and Heese placed fifth in both the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games where they were eliminated both times by teams that eventually captured the quadrennial's silver medal (2000 by Ze Marco de Melo/Ricardo Santos of Brazil and 2004 by Javier Bosma/Pablo Herrera of Spain).
Canadians John Child (left) and Mark Heese on the Atlanta 1996 Olympic podium

Brenha and Maia also participated in the Sydney (fourth) and Athens (ninth) Olympics before retiring from the sport.  The Portuguese's match semi-final match with Americans Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana is another one of those epic confrontations.  After a red card for delay game on the Americans to give Brenha and Maia a 12-11 lead in side-out scoring, Blanton and Fonoimoana regrouped to win 15-12 in 71 minutes.  Two days later, the Americans defeated Ze Marco and Ricardo for the Sydney gold while Brenha and Maia were upset by Ahman and Hager.
Portugal's Joao Brenha (left) and Miguel Luiz Maia

As for Henkel and Smith, the Americans retired in 2003 and 2001, respectively.  Henkel, who resides in California with his wife Ana Paula of Brazilian Volleyball fame, never won a Beach Volleyball event.  Smith with 129 domestic and 10 international tittles to his credit, will be in Rio as member of the FIVB control committee.

As Don Markus quoted Smith in the Baltimore Sun on July 27 1996 after his team's setback to Kiraly and Steffes, "We're competitive with anybody in the world.  I hope Henkel and Smith will be remembered."  Kiraly was quoted in saying "we did a lot of yelling under the net.  It was the kind of match that puts people in the seats."

And since July 28, 1996 forward, Kiraly was right as that match along with the others that have followed in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London and now Rio have put people in the seats at such iconic venues like Copacabana to watch the "bests of the best" compete for Olympic gold.


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