Christian Sorum (NOR)

All the evidence you’d need to understand the unquestioned growth of beach volleyball since it was added to the Olympic programme in 1996 you would be able to find on the men's podium at the Tokyo Olympic Games: three teams from three countries, winning their first beach volleyball Olympic medals.

Norway, a country far more widely known for its success in the Winter Olympics, claimed gold on the sublime talents of young Anders Mol and Christian Sorum. ROC, who contended with Brazil and the United States as one of the sport’s biggest powers, also won its first medal, a silver for Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy. And Qatar, a country of just 2.8 million people, took bronze behind the explosive abilities of Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan.

Three very different countries, in both population and climate and location on the map, three disparate styles of play, three new medals. And the further down you go, the more you see the growing diversity of talent in beach volleyball. Of the 16 teams who finished tied for ninth or better, there were 13 countries represented.

Triumphant Krasilnikov

Triumphant Krasilnikov

Norway is still king

For two years, there wasn’t so much as a semblance of doubt or debate over who was the best team in the world: Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum. They burst onto the scene at the end of the 2018 season, winning in Gstaad, Vienna, and Hamburg in back to back to back tournaments, an unprecedented string of success. They followed it up with eight golds in 13 events in 2019. They won every award there was to win: Best Team, Best Blocker, Best Defender, Best Offensive Player, Most Outstanding.

The problem with that success, however, is that it attracts eyes – all the eyes in the beach volleyball world. How, every team was wondering, do we stop these kids? A temporary solution seemed to have been found, at the worst possible time for the Norwegians, as teams shifted their strategy, putting more service pressure on Mol, taking the ball out of the hands of Sorum. The result was a 17th in Sochi, ninth in Ostrava, and a fifth in Gstaad. The three events leading up to the Olympic Games was their worst stretch of tournaments since they were playing in one-stars at the beginning of 2018.

Maybe, it was fair to wonder, the world had found a solution.

The world had not found a solution.

Yes, Norway proved to be mortal, something that didn’t seem to be true in 2019. But in Tokyo, where they won four straight matches on eight straight sets to win a gold medal, they proved that they are still very much the kings of the beach.

Mol and Sorum celebrate their country’s first Olympic semifinal on the beach

Mol and Sorum celebrate their country’s first Olympic semifinal on the beach

So long to the legends

The Tokyo Olympics will likely be looked back upon as a changing of the guard: one generation officially putting itself on the map; a legendary one is moving on. The average age of the medallists in Tokyo is an astonishing 25.8 years old. In a sport that can often take pride in the longevity of its athletes, there are some new kids on the block, and they’ll be here for quite some time.

It’s an exciting, thrilling time to be in the sport of beach volleyball, both as a fan and a player. For at least two more Olympic quads, barring something strange, we’ll be able to watch the magnificent talent of Mol and Sorum, Stoyanovskiy and Krasilnikov, Cherif and Ahmed, not to mention the dozens of other youngsters populating the top 50 in the FIVB rankings.

Yet Tokyo was the last international event for a pair – and potentially trio – of beach volleyball legends. Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb, who have competed in every Olympic Games since 2008, announced their international retirements just days after bowing out in ninth place each. Dalhausser will go down as one of the best players of all time; Gibb is beloved in the United States, considered one of the best blockers to ever represent America.

As for the third legend in question, Alison Cerutti, he of two Olympic medals, one gold, one silver, the future is yet unknown. The fourth seed in Tokyo, he and Alvaro Filho took a fifth.

“Now it’s back home to see my family, my kids,” Alison said after a quarterfinal loss to Latvians Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs. “I don't know about my future. At this moment, I’ll have two weeks in the home then I don't know yet.”