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Sunday, October 1
Yugoslavia wins first gold medal

SYDNEY, Australia -- The rest of the volleyball world saw the Yugoslavs coming. It just couldn't do anything to stop them.

Bouncing back from a four-game loss to the Russians to start the games, Yugoslavia was relentless Sunday in a 25-22, 25-22, 25-20 victory over Russia for its first gold medal in the sport.

Vladimir Grbic
Yugoslavia's Vladimir Grbic celebrates his country's first volleyball gold medal.

"Traditionally, I'm a sick optimist," said Vladimir Grbic, who stripped to his underwear after the victory and wrapped himself in the Yugoslav flag. "When I was talking about gold in August, when we got together, everyone was staring at me weirdly. I bored the bejesus out of everybody with my stories about gold."

The gold finally validates the sport in a country where fans never have embraced it.

"They are looking at us as gods. We are their great warriors," said Nikola Grbic, Vladimir's brother.

Yugoslavia may be considered a surprise champion, playing in just its third Olympics. But the team won bronze in Atlanta and took second at the 1998 world championships.

Against Russia, the Yugoslavs finally pushed through, using the same brutish style that made them the most dangerous team from the start of the tournament.

"They won with honor," said Russian coach Genadi Chipolin. "This is a team which has proved for many years that it's one of the best in the world."

Unlike Russia or the other top-level teams, Yugoslavia didn't have a standout hitter to rely on for easy points. It just had five players who could punish the ball and worked well together.

Yugoslavia got to the championship by being mentally stronger than world champion Italy, pulling out close points. It did the same against Russia.

The Russians, behind sensational hitter Roman Yakovlev, led 21-20 in the first game and were tied at 22 in the second, but Yugoslavia pulled away both times.

The third game was no contest. Vladimir Grbic stuffed Yakovlev to give his team a 16-12 lead. Grbic screamed, ran along the padded barrier and whipped up the crowd.

The silver medal represents a resurgence by the Russians. After winning medals in its first six Olympics, including gold in 1964, '66 and '80, the team slumped to seventh in Barcelona and fourth in Atlanta.

"It's a great pity that we didn't show the game we could have played," said Russian captain Vadim Khamoutskikh.

After defeating Cuba in a tense five-game match to get to the semifinals, the Russian coach was so happy he rolled around on the floor and lost a shoe. Russia beat Argentina to get to its first gold-medal match since 1988.

While Russia appeared to have worn down through the tournament -- Yakovlev's 75-mph serve slowed with each match -- the Yugoslavs only seemed to get stronger and play better.

Their next time out, the Yugoslavs pushed Italy to the limit before losing 22-20 in the last game. That was their final defeat. They next won easily over the United States and got by Argentina and South Korea to finish group play. They defeated the Netherlands in the quarters before stunning the Italians.

"Before the Olympics, we had won against everybody, but never collected these victories in one tournament," Nikola Grbic said. "Here I think we knew we could do it."

Yugoslav coach Zoran Gajic said the day of the victory over Italy that his players were more focused since they were not paid for their efforts, while the Italians were compensated handsomely.

Gajic also said his countrymen viewed volleyball as a "second-class" sport and that they would "recognize nothing but gold."

They have some new heroes now.

"Now we are in the first league of sports in Yugoslavia," Gajic said. "Our people are used to the winners, and those are the players they admire."


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