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So Says

Karch Kiraly

February 23, 1986|BILL DWYRE | Bill Dwyre is sports editor of The Times.

Karch Kiraly, a Santa Barbara native and a UCLA biochemistry graduate, is arguably the world's best volleyball player. He was on the U.S. gold-medal team in the '84 Olympics, was most valuable player of the '85 World Cup in Japan and is a finalist for the Amateur Athletics Union's Sullivan Award, honoring the year's top amateur athlete. The winner will be announced Monday night. Q: What are your chances of winning the Sullivan Award? A: I'm excited because I'm the first volleyball player to be in the final 10, but it's pretty hard to beat out those track and field people. Greg Louganis, our gold-medal diver, finally won last year, but it was on his sixth nomination. I do think if I won it would be totally justified, with the year I had and the team had. Q: The major success of that year, of course, was winning the World Cup. A: It was phenomenal. It was a round-robin format, and we beat the Soviets in an early-round game in one of the longest ever played. It took 3 hours, 36 minutes, and my dad, who was there, said he lived about five years before we were done. We played a best-of-five-game match, and in the fifth game we were down 9-3, 10-4 and 11-5 before we came back to win 15-12. We outscored them 10-1 to win. Q: When events like that are far away , the U.S. fan often misses the result and significance. A: That's quite true. There was some press attention, but not all that much. The World Cup is one of three jewels in international volleyball's triple crown, the others being the Olympics and the World Championships. When we won in November in Japan, it marked the first triple-crown event the Soviets lost that they had entered since 1976. Q: The World Cup win also got the team an automatic berth in the '88 Olympics in Seoul, didn't it? A: It sure did, and the Soviets got one, too, because they finished second. But they had some anxious moments, and it was fun to watch them squirm. The Czechs had beaten them in the tournament--in fact, when that happened, the Soviet coach resigned immediately on Japanese television. Poor guy is somewhere in Siberia now, I suppose. Anyway, we played the Czechs in our last game, after we had the Cup clinched. But if we had lost to the Czechs, they would have gotten second and the Soviets would have to go through all sorts of qualifying just to get into the Seoul Games. I think the Soviets really thought we might throw the game to mess them up. But we wanted to go through the tournament undefeated, and we did. Q: How do you answer those who call your Olympic gold medal a fluke because the Soviets boycotted? A: I don't feel I have to answer them at all. Just prior to their boycott announcement, we had beaten them. They announced the boycott when we were over there, the night of our first victory over the Soviets since July of 1968. We were in our locker room, thinking about our win and about having a replay of that in the Olympics. And their coach was outside, getting the news of his country's boycott. Also, against three other boycotting countries, we had done well. We were 13-2 against Poland, 11-0 against Bulgaria and 12-6 against Cuba. Q: How does one go on competing after reaching the ultimate high of an Olympic gold medal? A: In '84 I was the youngest on the team at age 23. A world-class athlete in volleyball has lots of years left after that, and I knew that. And no matter how I shrug it off, the fact that the Soviets weren't here left a lingering doubt, kind of like we had something left to prove. Q: Everyone in amateur sports seems to use the Soviets as a yardstick . Why? A: It's because of the massive nature of their training programs. They have 280,000 male volleyball competitors. We have 8,000 men and a feeder system of only 55 university volleyball programs. Right now, they have perhaps 700-800 men who are legitimately good enough to make their national volleyball team. We have maybe 30. Q: What's next? Will you retire soon and follow your father into medicine? A: Well, next is easy. It's the World Championships in France in September. After that, I just don't know. Playing in the '88 Olympics is by no means certain. I'm 25, and waiting until age 28-29 to go to medical school is a pretty late start. I have some decisions ahead. Q: What has the reception for the men's U.S. volleyball team been since its triumph in the Olympics? A: Well, sponsorship dropped off quickly. Corporations see that the Olympics are not currently a hot item, and they back off. As for fan reception, we've had highs and lows. We played the Soviets in front of 14,200 in the Kingdome in Seattle. But we also toured with the Bulgarian team and drew 1,100-1,200 in Texas. We're still not as well financed as we need to be, despite money generated by the Olympics. Our federation is taking the conservative approach, using only interest on the Olympic funds, rather than tapping the principal. I think that's a mistake. If we can't generate some things now, after our Olympic success, we'll never be able to. Q: Any personal wish for future Olympics? A: Yes. I'd like to see them opened up to pros so that Magic (Johnson) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) could play and kill the Russians in basketball. The Russians are still gloating over their win 14 years ago when they got four chances to score one basket in the final seconds.

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