Legendary injin Smith (right), who won the first-ever FIVB event in Rio with Randy Stoklos in 1987, interviews the Rio Open gold medal winners Janis Smedins (left) and Aleksandrs Samoilovs (center) of Latvia.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 2016 - When one arrives at the newly-constructed Beach Volleyball arena for the Rio 2016 Olympics on iconic Copacabana where the legends of the sport have been competing and practicing for the past 30 years, your immediate reaction is “wow” and how “special” the competition will be for the Summer Games.
Dubbed the “Coliseu on Copacabana”, the construction for the Beach Volleyball compound featuring the 12,000-seat center court started in mid-May. With 108 matches to be played over a 13-day period starting Saturday and concluding August 18, Beach Volleyball and Olympic fans have been quick to buy tickets for the sixth consecutive quadrennial in which the sport has been contested in the Summer Games.
The Rio 2016 Olympic competition marks the third-time in the last 11 months that the top players on the FIVB World Tour have returned to Copacabana as the current Olympic site hosted a “test” event (Rio Open) last September followed by the US$800,000 Rio Grand Slam in mid-March where more than 140,000 fans attended six days of competition.
Packed grandstands at March's Rio Grand Slam
Since the first FIVB-sanctioned tournament in 1987, Rio de Janeiro has organized 17 men’s and 10 women’s tournaments. The current Copacabana site also hosted the 2003 FIVB World Championships where Brazilians Emanuel Rego/Ricardo Santos and Americans Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh Jennings topped the men’s and women’s podiums, respectively.
With Rio de Janeiro hosting its 18th FIVB-sanctioned Beach Volleyball event, the South American city ties Klagenfurt in staging the most international events. Brazilian pairs have won 25 of the 51 men's medals given out to date in Rio. The women from Brazil have won 17 of the 30 Rio women's medals. Included in the medal total are the podium placers from the 2005 FIVB under-21 World Championships on Copacabana.
“This is the place and the event that everyone has been preparing for the past four seasons,” said 31-year old Latvian Aleksandrs Samoilovs, who has claimed two gold medals on Copacabana during his FIVB career. “Gold in every tournament is something special for us.”
TOP FIVB WORLD TOUR MEN’S TEAM
Samoilovs and Smedins enter the Rio 2016 Olympics as the top team on the 2015-2016 FIVB World Tour ranking list. The Latvian pair has already clinched a berth in September’s SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto, Canada, where 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams will be competing in the $500,000 event with the winning tandems shared the $100,000 first-place prizes.
As one of the leading contenders for a Rio Olympic medal, Samoilovs and Smedins have advanced to FIVB World Tour “final fours” in their last four events with podium-topping performances at the Olsztyn Grand Slam and A1 Major Klagenfurt. The pair placed fourth at the Porec Major and were third in the Gstaad Major as the Latvians have combined for a 24-7 mark record in their last four events.
“Every gold medal is special and usually the best one is the last one,” said Samoilovs after winning the A1 Major Klagenfurt this past Sunday in Austria. “So the Klagenfurt gold medal is the best one until the next one. Yeah, I hope in Rio.”
SUCCESS, THEN DISAPPOINTMENT
Prior to the Olympic “test” event and the Rio Grand Slam, Samoilovs teamed with Martins Plavins to win the 2015 FIVB under-21 world championships on Copacabana. With the iconic beach not hosting an international event for nine-straight seasons (2006-2014), Samoilovs topped his second Copacabana podium with Smedins at the Olympic “test” event.
The Latvians returned in March to Rio and finished a “disappointing” 17th with one of their setbacks being a three-set decision to eventual Grand Slam gold medal winners Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak of Poland 2-1 (21-19, 11-21, 11-15) in a 44-minute pool play match. The March title on Copacabana helped sealed Kantor and Losiak’s berth for the Rio Olympics.
Poland's Piotr Kantor (right) and Bartosz Losiak (lefft) defend Latvia's Janis Smedins in mid-March's Rio Grand Slam.
“The Rio Grand Slam was our first event in 2016 and we dropped three very close matches to three very competitive teams of which two will be playing in the Olympics,” said Smedins, who celebrated his 29th birthday by winning gold in Klagenfurt. “We are ready now, but so will all the other teams. The key is keeping your focus and avoid the Olympic distractions.”
Smedins understands what it takes to win an Olympic medal as he teamed with Plavins to capture the bronze medal at the London 2012 Games. The finish was surprising to the casual Beach Volleyball follower, but Smedins and Plavins were prepared to play on the sport’s biggest stage as the Latvian pair placed fourth a year earlier at the 2011 FIVB World Championships in Rome.
Samoilovs, who will be competing in his third Olympics, and Smedins will be playing in one of the toughest Rio groups (Pool D) as the pair opens Monday against Ben Saxton/Chaim Schalk of Canada followed by a Tuesday match against Nivaldo Diaz/Sergio Gonzalez of Cuba.
While the Canadians are regulars on the FIVB World Tour as the two teams have met seven times with Saxton and Schalk holding a 4-3 edge in the series, the Cubans have been flying under the radar. Diaz and Gonzalez have played in only one international event by placing ninth last year at the FIVB World Championships in The Netherlands.
Cuba's Sergio Gonzalez (left) and Nivaldo Diaz at the 2015 FIVB World Championships.
Evandro Goncalves and Pedro Solberg of Brazil, the top team in Pool D, will be challenged by the Latvians in the last of 36 men’s pool play matches August 11. The two teams have played only once of the FIVB World Tour with the Brazilians posting a 2-1 (21-17, 19-21, 15-11) pool play win July 8 at the Gstaad Major in 47 minutes. Both teams advanced to the Swiss event’s “final four” with Evandro and Pedro topping the podium by defeating Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in the finals.