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This Month’s Women’s World Championship Is The Latest Chapter In Long History Of Volleyball In Japan

By Chrös McDougall | Oct. 02, 2018, 11:05 a.m. (ET)


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With origins closely mirroring those of basketball, volleyball was founded in the 1890s at a YMCA in Massachusetts and eventually spread around the world. Unlike basketball, however, the founding country soon found itself playing catch-up to its international competition.

In fact, when the sport debuted at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, it was the host country, Japan, that arrived as the favorite to win the women’s gold medal.

Under the strict direction of coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, a former Japanese Army commander, the “Witches of the Orient” were the sport’s power, having won the 1962 world title and every match they’d played for the previous five years.

The team played a game almost unrecognizable from the one seen on school playgrounds across the U.S.

Using intense training methods that would be considered cruel if tried today, Daimatsu put his players through endless practices that began after a day shift at the factory and often ended into the next morning. There the players learned to sacrifice their bodies, constantly diving across the floor and using whatever means necessary to maintain a rally.

The result was a disciplined, organized and relentless team that changed global perceptions about Japanese women and became an immense source of local pride. And at the Tokyo Games, the Japanese team ruled, dropping just one set en route to the gold medal.

As Robert Trumbull, reporting in The New York Times, described following the team’s finale against the Soviet Union, “Using the acrobatics, deception and power shots that have made them legendary in world volleyball circles, the Japanese girls came up to expectations against a well-drilled and powerful opponent.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. teams, Trumbull wrote, “still play the game poorly by the standards of the Tokyo Olympics.”

Much has changed since the sport’s memorable Olympic debut, with volleyball having grown from a curiosity at the 1964 Games to an Olympic stalwart – with the two-a-side beach version joining the indoor game on the Olympic program in 1996. The sport has continued to expand, too. Japan, though no longer the force it once was, remains a competitive team, while countries as distant as China, Cuba, Serbia and Peru can all call themselves Olympic medalists in women’s volleyball.

And though the U.S. women are still in search of their first Olympic gold medal, the team is no slouch on the international stage. In fact, Team USA is in Japan this month as defending gold medalist at the FIVB Women’s World Championship, which continues through Oct. 20. And less than two years from now, the team will be back in Tokyo, this time as the 2020 Olympics return to the Japanese capital.

With all eyes on Japan for the world championship, here are some key details to know.

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How It Works
The world championship uses an extended format that began with 24 teams split into four pools for round-robin play from Sept. 29 to Oct. 4. From there the top two teams in each pool advance to the second round, where 16 teams are split into two pools for another round robin lasting from Oct. 7-11. The top three teams from each pool then advance to another two-pool round robin Oct. 14-16. The semifinals are held Oct. 19, followed one day later by the medal rounds. Games are being held in five Japanese cities.

Through three of five matches in the first round, the U.S. is 3-0 with games scheduled against Thailand on Wednesday and Russia on Thursday.


Members of the U.S. women's team talk in a huddle at the FIVB Women's World Championship on Oct. 2, 2018 in Kobe, Japan.


U.S. History
With their win at the 2014 FIVB World Championship, the U.S. women claimed their long-awaited first victory in one of the sport’s triple crown tournaments, which also include the Olympic Games and the FIVB World Cup. The lack of top-shelf hardware is somewhat of a surprise for the U.S., which has won five Olympic medals and five other world championship medals dating back to 1967.

There’s reason to believe the 2014 world title was no aberration.

In recent years, the U.S. women have consistently been among the best in the world, with two silver medals and a bronze over the past three Olympics and top-three finishes at each of the past four World Cups, dating back to 2003.

More recently, the U.S. has been on a roll in 2018, having already won the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League tournament, which included a $1 million prize to the winning team, and the Pan American Cup in July. On the year, the Americans came into the world championship with a 26-4 record, including four straight wins against the host country during an August tour of Brazil.

Who To Watch
Eight of the 14 U.S. athletes in Japan are Olympians, including two-time Olympians in Foluke Akinradewo and Jordan Larson. Tori Dixon, a member of the 2014 world championship team, might have joined them in Rio if not for injury.

Leading the way for Team USA in Japan, though, is Michelle Bartsch-Hackley. The 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Champaign, Illinois, was named the Nations League MVP after leading the team in scoring in 12 of the 19 games, including three of the final four games.

A late riser in the sport, Bartsch-Hackley, 28, only became a regular on the national team in recent years and played her first major international competition in 2016.

Another name to watch is outside hitter Kim Hill, who was the MVP at the 2014 world championship and led the U.S. in scoring in the Nations League title game against Turkey.

Through the first two games at the world championships, either Hill or Bartsch-Hackley led Team USA in scoring.

Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.