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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BEACH VOLLEYBALL

Kiraly Brings Midas Touch to the Sand and the Sport

Beach volleyball: Sport gets perfect ending to new beginning as he and Steffes beat Dodd-Whitmarsh for gold medal.

July 29, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JONESBORO, Ga. — What, you were expecting two guys from the Ozarks to win the first gold medal in Olympic beach volleyball?

Get a grip.

As it pleaded its future Olympic case, beach volleyball needed "the Godfather" to spike it to respectability. It needed the California beach boy, the sultan of set, to draw a line in the sand with his tanned toe.

The way soccer needed Pele, and boxing Muhammad Ali, beach volleyball needed Karch Kiraly to christen this latest Olympic grand opening.

Wish granted.

The sport got the perfect ending to its new beginning Sunday when Kiraly and able sidekick Kent Steffes defeated Mike Whitmarsh and Mike Dodd, 12-5, 12-8, before a foot-stomping, hip-wiggling, totally gnarly 9,300 at Atlanta Beach.

Earlier in the day, John Child and Mark Heese of Canada emerged from the losers' bracket, defeated Portugal's Joao Brenha and Miguel Maia, 12-5, 12-8, and won the bronze medal.

Kiraly, from San Clemente, and Steffes, from Pacific Palisades, were nearly flawless and frequently spectacular in their straight-sets victory. It was a first Olympic moment for the 28-year-old Steffes and a coronation for Kiraly, 35, who became the first volleyball player to win three gold medals after having led the U.S. indoor team to glory in 1984 and 1988.

"What can you say," Dodd, the gracious loser, said. "To lose to Karch Kiraly, that's not anything to go home ashamed about."

Kiraly didn't invent the beach game--that was done in 1930 in Santa Monica--but he carried its banner after retiring from the U.S. indoor team in 1989.

There was nothing left for Kiraly to do in the sport but win the inaugural beach event. His victory, in the presence of IOC head Juan Antonio Samaranch, was probably the credibility rubber-stamp the game needed to insure its inclusion for the 2000 Sydney Games.

Kiraly most likely will have hung up his spike by then.

"I think it will be, and should be, a permanent part of the Olympic program," Kiraly said.

It appeared the volleyball gods were watching over Kiraly and Steffes. They jumped to a 6-0 lead in the first set, settling any early-game jitters, and watched as all their important shots seemed to hit the tape or dribble over the net.

"We had everything going for us," Steffes said.

Dodd and Whitmarsh were formidable foes, having defeated Kiraly and Steffes at the Olympic trials.

"It's hard to lose," Whitmarsh said. "But we lost to the best. Karch Kiraly has done more for volleyball than anyone I know.

Kiraly wasn't alone in his victory. Saturday, after he and Steffes had qualified for the final, Kiraly phoned his father Laszlo in California and implored him to fly in for the final.

Laszlo didn't want to jinx his son's chances by making the trip, but Kiraly had already bought the ticket so, in the end, Laszlo took a red-eye and was in the stands for his son's crowning achievement.

Kiraly, the former UCLA star, can now take his place among the greats in Olympic history. It's a label that will take some getting used to.

Last week, he was invited to a banquet that honored him as one of the 100 greatest living Olympic athletes.

"I was in awesome company," he said. "Carl Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Greg Louganis, Eric Heiden, Mark Spitz, Bonnie Blair. I was in awe. Then I started thinking, and that was the first time I had pangs of regret for not playing in Barcelona."

Kiraly, still in his prime, was criticized by some for retiring from the U.S. indoor team to devote more time to the beach game, which he began playing when he was 6.

"I'm very proud of the fact I was able to win both forms of volleyball," he said.

The inaugural beach games were an unqualified success. Crowds packed the Atlanta Beach stadium daily and partied as if it were Mardi Gras.

Yet, Kiraly fears the sport's politics may destroy it. At his post-victory news conference, he was still railing against the Olympic selection process, remaining outraged that rivals Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel--whom Kiraly and Steffes defeated in the mother of all volleyball matches Friday--were given an automatic Olympic berth by FIVB, the international volleyball federation, because of their standing in the FIVB tour.

Kiraly and Steffes, along with Dodd and Whitmarsh, compete in the rival Assn. of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) and had to qualify through Olympic trials.

It didn't take Kiraly long to point out that Sunday's was an all-AVP final.

"After all the crap we've been through, it feels that much sweeter," he said.

Kiraly believes the qualifying dispute may jeopardize the sport's Olympic future.

"We still have some things to get straight," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEDALISTS

Beach Volleyball

Gold: Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes, United States

Silver: Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh, United States

Bronze: John Child and Mark Heese, Canada

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