Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Some sports were always going to be like old friends: you might not have seen them for years, since high school for instance, but the minute you are reunited you get along so well and you remember why you were such good friends in the first place. Volleyball is one such sport. A relatively unpopular sport in the UK, volleyball is a well establish team-sport in Italy, with a lively professional league and international success for the men's team in the 1990s. It is also one of the most popular sports practised at school level, favoured for its non-contact nature, it's focus on agility rather than strength, indoor practice and small field and ground needed.

The sport was also greatly popularised to my generation by two Japanese anime en vogue on Italian television in the 1980s. From its invention in Massachusetts in 1895 as a lesser strenuous sport than basketball, volleyball went on to gain popularity in the first part of the 20th century, especially in Asia. By the the time of its inclusion in the Olympic programme for Tokyo 1964 the sport was hugely popular in Japan. Japan's women team won the inaugural gold against the then dominant USSR in a final televised -unusually for the times- live which captured the imagination of the nation.

The antics of the gold's medal winning team, lead Chikako Urano in 1968 to created a manga, known in the West as "Attack No.1", focusing on a young school girl playing volleyball. The manga, and later the anime spin-off, where hugely popular and helped define the sport-shojo sub-genre. About a decade later, the TV series was bought by fledgeling commercial TV in Italy, dubbed and aired in the late afternoons. Together with a later anime (called "Attacker You!", this time focusing on the quest for gold at the Seul 1988 Olympics), it went on to inspire countless young Italian girls to pick up volleyball, despite the dodgy dubbing, the strange cultural references and the gravity-defying antics of the heroines.

And this is how, in the 1990, while in high school in Italy, I came to play volleyball with great enthusiasm during PE. I came close to playing in a proper team too, but a lack of time prevented it. But since leaving Italy in late 1996, I never had much opportunity to play it, save for the rare sparring of beach volley on some holiday beach. Hence I was very keen on trying my hand at it again as part of my Gold Challenge. The only obstacle was to find a team that would adopt someone very rusty on the fundamentals. For some reason I thought that taking part in team sports as a novice might be a big challenge, but Stowmarket Volleyball Team proved to be splendidly accommodating.

They were very welcoming and quickly refreshed my long forgotten skills, and filled in the vocabulary of the sport (remember I use to play it in Italian!). The session, last of the summer, was played outside on nice soft grass, a welcome changed from the hard indoor courts of my youth. After some rounds of practice on the basics (digs, blocks, sets, serves and spikes) we quickly moved on to play games.

I was amazed by how quickly the moves and techniques came back to me, even though age and a heavier figure meant I was not as good -or elegant- at jumping high as I remembered. Agility and prompt reflexes are the most important skills in order to master volleyball. Being tall and strong is also an advantage. However, being a team sport, strategy and tactics play a very important role. The games we played were totally enjoable, regardless of skill or result. As a sport it doesn't seem to be too complex to get in, and it's good fun and a great entertainment to play with friends.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable first session, I look forward to going back in two weeks time.

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