By Vera Grbic
When I think of Apt613, I think of all things cultural. Sports do not come immediately to mind. However, as a long-standing culture and sports enthusiast, I think the two should more often coalesce. Then I realize that there may be a reason for the separation, at least in Canada. Much of our sporting focus is on hockey, “Canada’s game”. While I’m not arguing that hockey is played by only one specific cultural segment of Canada’s population – in fact, the wonderful thing about our national sport is that it brings together Canadians of all sorts of backgrounds – hockey is not on the level of a “world sport” like volleyball. Over the course of last week, from June 13 to 18, it was my privilege to witness volleyball at its highest levels. I am talking about the fact that volleyball – the indoor, 6-player sport, not to be confused with the beach variety – made its way to Gatineau with the VI Men’s Pan American Cup.
Do not mistake this as a jab at hockey. I am simply arguing that there are particular reasons that hockey is often left out of that enigmatic club of “world sport”. Hockey tends to be played in, and is most popular in countries where winter is the longest season. Aside from a few enthusiastic countries with a tropical climate, in most countries hockey is not even played by a minority of the population. And no, in reply to those that might argue the way of Ottawa’s Hope beach volleyball tournament, volleyball did not start as a tropical beach sport. Moreover, in many countries, hockey barely makes the news, let alone the headlines. In fact, until I immigrated to Canada in 1994, I had never even heard of hockey. So, at least from my very humble perspective, the argument has clout.
On the other hand, much like soccer and basketball, most countries in the world have some form of national volleyball league. What really gives it “world sport” status is that the habitual top teams come from a variety of continents, and not just from one hemisphere. Brazil dominates South America, Cuba takes Central America, U.S. has North America (much to Canada’s chagrin), China and Russia duke it out in Asia, and at varying times different European countries are on top.
Like the name suggests, the Pan American Cup does not bring the world together. To that I say, so what. We still have three of the top world teams in this section – though Cuba missed out this year. And that status was proven when the teams vying for gold in Saturday’s final were top contenders Brazil and the U.S.
And when you actually get into the fine points of the game, there is much to appreciate. Not only do you have national teams, but you also have audiences. And quite frankly, it’s fun to player and audience watch. I hadn’t seen this amount of international sports pride in Ottawa since the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. During some games, Argentina fans came out in full force. No matter the sport, they are amongst the most recognizable in the world, due to their signature sky-blue and white striped jerseys – the ultimate marketing technique for fandom. Canada had its own share of screaming fans, helped in their efforts by the volunteers that handed out thousands of small Canada flags. But Brazil’s backers, even when far outnumbered by Canada’s red army, were the most fervent. They showed up like they had already won the game – costumes, face paint, and chants in hand. The teams display these intricacies too. Brazil especially stood out. While team Canada and the rest of the teams had a very easygoing demeanour, the Brazilians brought out their “military” strategy. That is, they are all actually part of the Brazilian military. This means that even their warm-up and game regiment is militaristic. For example, during the anthem, they all stood like soldiers. And their benchers were the most diligent in their warm-ups, even if they had a slight chance of playing. Hey, if that’s what works, maybe Canada should form a national military team?
When it comes down to the actual games, rather than boring you with the point-by-point stats – some of which are detailed underneath – I’ll give you the rundown of interesting facts about the tournament. For one, local political celebrity, PM Stephen Harper, made an appearance during the semi-final between Brazil and Canada. At least he’s acknowledging that sports other than hockey exist. Secondly, for the first time in the six years of the Pan Am Cup, Brazil did not send boys to compete. Rather, they sent one of their top line-ups. What does this mean? It means that this tournament’s importance is growing, and since the top team is sending top players, hopefully other teams will follow suit for future Pan Am Cups. Finally, though Canada’s ending was a bittersweet consolation prize of Bronze, one of their players took away two of the most prestigious individual awards. Gavin Schmitt won top scorer and top spiker.
As the matches turned into medal ceremonies, it got even more interesting. After doing choreographed dances and marching around the court – while being followed by their posse of musical fans – the winning Brazilians stayed out on the court to mingle with fans and keep the celebration going. As far as international sports tournaments go, this one had the most relaxed atmosphere. Case-in-point, MVP Paulo Silva clutched the Brazilian flag around his shoulders while talking with throngs of starry-eyed fans.
So I took the opportunity to ask the players some questions. On Canada’s end, Alexandre Gaumont-Casias, who was out with injury during the tournament, explained with obvious disappointment that the third place outcome was expected. “I mean, it’s Brazil. First, second, or third line-up, they’re still amazing,” he explained. Brazil’s Alexander Marczewski, a young bencher, told me that he was often brought in during last points in a set in order to produce final nail-in-the-coffin spikes. Even though he probably played a total of 20 minutes the entire tournament, playing for a top Brazilian team gives you little to complain about. Finally, Thiego Sens, part of Brazil’s starting line-up and winner of best receiver tournament award, was ecstatic when he spoke to me. When I asked him if this tournament was important – since the first national team is currently representing Brazil at the 2011 FIVB World League – he replied that of course it was, since every international competition is important. If that is any indicator, it seems that the year the tournament was played on our very own soil could be the very year that made this tournament the next big thing in the realm of international volleyball.
To see the finer points of the game, as well as close ups of some of the players with whom I spoke, all of this is visually chronicled in my flickr reel.
Bronze medal match: Canada def. Puerto Rico 25-14, 25-20, 25-21
Gold medal match: Brazil def. U.S. 25-23, 21-25, 25-17, 28-26
For more stats and news, go to Volleyball Canada’s site for the tournament: http://www.volleyball.ca/content/vi-mens-pan-am-cup