Volleyball Won't Stop Short

Volleyball's normally a sport for the tall, but shorter players aren't taking it lying down.

The world's biggest amateur volleyball association, the Federation International de Volleyball, or FIVB, has created a new form of the game for shorter players only.

Players of the new Challenge Volleyball have to be less than 6 feet tall, for men, and 5 feet 6 inches tall, for women.

"According to world demographic studies, something like 90 percent of the world population is under these particular figures," FIVB spokeswoman Marcia Hill said in a telephone interview from the group's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

She said the FIVB has been "flooded" with inquiries from people around the globe wanting to start their own Challenge Volleyball leagues.

Not that volleyball was forbidden to the height-challenged at least not officially. But the natural advantages a taller player enjoyed made it tough for all but the very best short players to be competitive.

"For most players at most positions, it's not how big you are, it's how good or great you are a big goon, even if he's big, is still going to be a big goon," Pepperdine University men's volleyball coach Marv Dunphy said. "But at some point, a good big player is still going to beat a good little player."

And that basic rule is tough to get around, Dunphy said. He ran into that wall while coaching the U.S. men's Olympic volleyball team from 1984 to 1988, when one of his best players, Gary Sato, measured only 5 feet 11 inches.

"He was fabulous, could have been the best player I've ever seen," Dunphy said. "He was a great hitter and a great blocker for his size. But against the net, he couldn't compete with the Russians, [one of whom] was like 7 foot 5 inches."

Dunphy said it's not far off to liken the idea of height-restricted volleyball to weight classes in boxing.

When it proposed the new game, which has to be approved at the sport's congress in Argentina in September, the FIVB cited the success "short" volleyball has had in Brazil. It's been around for about five years, played in two states among about 20 teams, whose players are all under 6 feet 1 inch tall.

"I created it because people make fun of me because they say that I'm short," joked Brazilian National Volleyball Federation President Ary da Silva Graça Filho. "But really, it was because nowadays you have got to be 2 meters [about 6 feet 6 inches] or you're out."

But longtime volleyball players are skeptical and think Challenge Volleyball might be an example of political correctness run amok.

"Volleyball's challenging regardless of your height or physical abilities," former award-winning University of Central Oklahoma player Kate O'Neill Rauber said. "Taller people are better at attacking and spiking the ball, shorter players are obviously better passers. I think the new game cheapens the sport."

Rauber, 25, is 6 feet 2 inches tall, but said her success as a volleyball player came from talent and hard work, not from her height.

"I think the new game implies that just because you're tall you're a good volleyball player," she said. "But if you don't have the motor skills, it doesn't matter how tall you are."

She worried that the trend might spread to other sports. It has a precedent in the now-defunct World Basketball League, founded in 1988, which only allowed players who were under 6 feet 5 inches (later 6 feet 7 inches).

But former Olympic assistant coach Gary Sato, who is Olympian Eric Sato's brother, said he was excited by the possibility of games for shorter people.

"It opens the doors for a lot of guys that don't get a chance to play because they're putting a real premium on the real big guys," Sato said. "I'm sure there will be a lot of great players out there in this new league."

The future of Challenge Volleyball might best be seen in Brazil, where Graça called it a success with both players and audiences.

"You have many more rallies and the ball is not so violent," he said from his Rio de Janiero office. "With [the short people's league] you can see so much more volleyball."