Beloved in Poland, Cuba, Japan, the U.S.S.R. and a dozen other countries large and small, volleyball is pretty much a neglected foster child in America, the land of its birth. The game was invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan, physical director of the Holyoke, Mass., YMCA, where for years the only commemoration of the fact was a moldy plaque over the water fountain in the gym. Spalding turned out the first volleyball in 1900, yet today America's official ball is made in Japan.
Volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1964 in Tokyo, where volleyball is almost as popular as raw fish. That year the U.S. teams were embarrassed to finish far down the list, as if, instead of their own native game, they were playing field hockey against Pakistanis. Much the same thing happened four years later in Mexico City, and in the last two Olympiads neither U.S. team could even qualify.
Last week the sad story continued. Men's and women's teams from the People's Republic of China were touring the U.S. Their slogan was "Yu-i-Ti-i, Pi-sai-Ti-erh," which their translators said means, "Friendship first, then spike the ball down their throats."
The Chinese warmed up by smashing lesser American teams in Dayton and Fairfax, Va.; then last Saturday night in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston, they went against the best amateurs America could offer. Playing three-game matches, the Chinese women won 15-7, 15-4, 15-11. The Chinese men won 7-15, 15-6, 15-10.
The Chinese tour, which continues this week with matches in El Paso, Berkeley, Calif. and Honolulu, is the latest round of the Ping-Pong diplomacy that started with the U.S. table-tennis team's much-publicized visit to China in April of 1971. Since then there have been seven sporting trips across the Pacific in one direction or the other. China's table-tennis team visited the U.S. in '72, their gymnasts in '73, their experts in martial arts in '74 and their women's basketball team last November.
The current trip by the Chinese was made despite the death Sept. 9 of Chairman Mao Tse-tung and the month of official mourning, which did not end until last Friday. Because of the mourning period, the tour's co-sponsors, the U.S. Volleyball Association and the National Committee on U.S.- China Relations, eliminated parties, banquets and fetes. Still, the athletes did not give up eating ice cream, which they dearly love. Accompanied by special security personnel, they went almost everywhere as a group, their friendly smiles contrasting sharply with their drab, dark-gray uniforms and topcoats.
Although they continually stressed the "friendship first, competition second" credo, the Chinese were anything but dialectic-spouting Red Guards or grim automatons. At their Friday-afternoon workout at a Pasadena junior college, the men laughed and capered like schoolboys as they threw balls at each other in an agility drill. No one minded when some translators and members of the U.S.- China committee started an impromptu game on an adjacent court. Several of the leaders of the Chinese delegation loosened the mandarin collars on their tunics and joined in.
In Dayton Monday night an inexperienced group of U.S. women, the East All Stars, were overmatched against the Chinese women, a strapping bunch who seemed to be huskier than the Chinese men (all were 5'7" or taller). The Americans were mostly college students and four of them were still in their teens. Many had never seen an international match, much less played in one, and they were wiped out 15-1, 15-5, 15-5.
The Midwest All Stars, mostly inexperienced college men from Ohio State, Ball State and Kellogg (a junior college in Battle Creek, Mich.), had one veteran among them, Doug Beal, 29, a good setter who has played on numerous U.S. national teams. The Chinese men won almost as one-sidedly as the women.
Thursday night it was much the same in a big high-school gymnasium in woodsy Fairfax, Va., outside Washington. The same U.S. women lost by a bigger margin, and the same men's team managed to win the first game 17-15 before losing the next two, 15-9, 15-9.