United States Volleyball Haleigh Washington

United States' middle blocker Haleigh Washington attacking against Japan. Photo: Japan Volleyball Association Instagram

Diving into the volleyball competition, can Brazil’s men and China’s women defend their Rio Olympic gold medals?

Volleyball, which debuted at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, will feature men and women’s competitions. For all your Olympic coverage, stay tuned to The Inner Sanctum’s Olympic hub and the Olympics Central.

A contest of athleticism, skill and strategy, volleyball has it all.

Volleyball is played to the best of five sets, where each set goes to 25 points with a two-point advantage. Should the match be tied at two sets apiece, then the final set is played to 15.

Each team has six players on the court, rotating clockwise at every side-out. In a rally, a team has three touches to set up an attack over the net.

In Tokyo, the event will take place at Ariake Arena. This venue is a new, multi-sport arena built for the Olympics, and will also host the wheelchair basketball for the Paralympics. 

Matches will be played every day from July 24 to August 8. The quarterfinals will begin on August 3, with the men’s medals contested on August 7 and women’s to conclude hours before the closing ceremony.

In the men and women’s competition, 12 teams have qualified and they have been divided into two pools for the preliminary rounds. 

Each team will play the other five teams from their pool, with the top four advancing to the knock-out stage of the tournament.


At Rio in 2016, Brazil beat out Italy for gold in a straight-sets victory, while the United States took bronze in a 3-2 win over Russia. 

Brazil has featured in the last four men’s gold medal matches, winning in 2004 and 2016. The United States has also won multiple gold medals, most recently in Beijing.  

The USSR dominated men’s and women’s volleyball at the Olympics in the beginning. The Soviet Union won the first two gold medals on offer and continued to feature on the podium at the next three Olympics. 

The 12 qualified teams are separated into two pools, with current world number one and two Brazil and Poland on opposite sides.

Men’s preliminary pools

Pool APool B
PolandUnited States
ItalyRussian Olympic Committee

The Volleyball Nations League is currently in its final week of competition in Italy, where 16 countries play across five weeks in men’s and women’s tournaments. This league was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but its third edition has been a perfect warm-up for the Olympic teams in 2021.

Heading into the last preliminary round, Brazil led the way in the men’s competition with eight wins from nine matches. Fellow Olympic qualifiers Poland and France have seven wins. 

The United States has only had four wins in this competition and is struggling for form. They are number three in the world rankings and should be able to find a way into the Olympic quarterfinals with wins over Argentina and Tunisia. From there, anything can happen.

Brazil will likely continue dominating the men’s competition and you can pencil them in for a fifth gold medal match in a row. Their biggest competitor in the preliminary rounds will be the Russian Olympic Committee, whilst in the cross-over Brazil will want to avoid Poland until the gold medal match.

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Only five teams have won the women’s gold medal. The USSR won four gold medals and two silver medals across the first seven editions of the event. 

More recently, China and Brazil have dominated the gold medal matches at the past four Olympics. Also in the medals at the past three editions is the United States who has won silver and bronze at the past three editions.

In Rio, China took gold with a three set to one victory over Serbia. The United States finished with bronze following a 3-1 win against Netherlands. 

Women’s preliminary pools

Pool APool B
SerbiaUnited States
BrazilRussian Olympic Committee
South KoreaItaly
Dominican RepublicArgentina 

Current world number one and two China and the United States are in the same preliminary pool, while third-placed Brazil in Pool A has world number five and host nation, Japan.

In Italy, at the Volleyball Nations League, the United States is currently on top of the women’s standings, dropping just three sets in 12 wins. 

With three preliminary games and finals remaining, they look like the team to beat and will come into Tokyo in the best form.

Just behind are Brazil, Japan and Turkey on nine wins, while Netherlands and Russia have eight. The top four will make the semi-finals. The United States has already defeated Brazil (3-1), Japan (3-0) and Turkey (3-1) in the preliminary rounds.

Could this be the year for this United States women’s team? Who have spent the extra time developing connection in a strong squad of veterans and newcomers.

They should be in contention for a podium finish, and possibly a first gold medal.

China, trying to defend its Rio 2016 gold medal, will be up with the best, as will Brazil.

The US face China in the preliminary rounds on July 27, in what could be a preview of a medal match-up.

The volleyball commences on July 24 and will conclude with the women’s medal matches on August 8.

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