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A new ‘Filipino sport’

Last Saturday, Smart Araneta Coliseum was packed to the rafters with fans from Ateneo and La Salle, but wait, this was not a basketball game. This was the championship game for the women’s volleyball of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP).

The turnout, and the wild cheering, tell me volleyball, or at least women’s volleyball, is coming of age in the Philippines and, as sports go, taking on its own Filipino characteristics.

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In previous UAAP seasons the volleyball competitions were held in the Filoil Stadium in San Juan. But each year, the queues for tickets were getting longer. Holding the UAAP volleyball competitions at the Mall of Asia and Araneta is a calculated risk considering that you need at least 15,000 spectators to say the event was well attended.  I was told we hit 22,000 at the championship volleyball game last Saturday.

The crowds at these games were of a different demographic compared to those in basketball. The competing schools’ students accounted for many of the spectators, but volleyball seems to have gained favor as well as a family sport. Entire clans trooped in to watch—from grandparents to young kids, everybody trying to outdo each other with their cheering antics.

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Also, incredibly, there were people who just wanted to watch the game, rooting for particular schools but not necessarily coming from those institutions. I was particularly touched during a women’s semifinals game when UP played against Ateneo, and I noticed boxes of fried chicken. One of UP’s faculty members told me that a woman from Nueva Ecija had ordered fried chicken take-aways for all our team members. She was not from UP, and none of her children were in UP.  She did it because she liked our team members who, she said, were easy to approach for selfies and just nice (mabait), always gracious.  And, yes, they played well too.

What is it about volleyball that’s capturing Filipinos’ interest?

Volleyball was “invented” in the United States almost around the same time as basketball—in the late 19th century.  Both sports were intended as an indoor alternative to keep athletes fit. Volleyball was first called “mintonette” and combined rules from tennis and handball.

Speed and stamina

The game’s fast pace, balls forcefully flying from one court to another, led to its new name, and the game spread quickly not just in America but throughout the world.  We got the game from the Americans and there is a curious mention in Wikipedia about how quickly the rules evolved, including “set and spike” moves already in place in 1916 in the Philippines.

The rules are amazingly complicated and I have to confess that until last Saturday I was happy just watching the game.  But at the championship, I had my eldest daughter, a volleyball player herself, with me and she explained—don’t laugh—why we have five sets, and why there’s no timer on when the sets are about to end.

When I did check the Internet for descriptions of different types of serves, my anthropological interest perked up after reading about a move in Brazil called the jornada nas estrellas, “star trek,” known in English as the sky ball serve.  As the name suggests, the ball goes high, high up in the air. The move was popular with the Brazilian teams but is apparently now outdated.

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I suspect the appeal of volleyball to Filipinos comes in part with its speed.  Points build up quickly, even more quickly than basketball and that allows for a lot of cheering and applause. I think, too, the teams being more or less stationary on either side of the court makes the game easier to follow, but still with many moments of high suspense. I like the way volleyballs fly upwards, staying a split of a second in the air then making a slow descent where everyone holds their breath, wondering which player will catch and serve.

Besides the speed, we admire the stamina, admiring the athletes even after one gruelling set.

This is a game that has to be watched live with all its split-second mysteries: Did the ball make it within the boundary, which means the receiving team loses a point? Which side of the net was the ball when it was hit? Modern camera technologies help to answer the questions with an instant replay, projected for the thousands of spectators to see, with the stadium roaring a collective “wow.”

Gender and volleyball

It’s clear, too, that women’s volleyball is surging far ahead men’s volleyball. Yes, there’s a gender element here, the sport being stereotyped as the domain of women and male gays; and rather than countering the latter, I’d say, and why not?  Perhaps volleyball requires a certain grace, an elan that’s hard for macho athletes to master.

Notice, too, how fortunate women volleyball players are able to express their feelings much more openly, and theatrically, than men can. There were so many celebratory movements, dances actually, like team members breaking out into a can-can routine (kicking one leg upwards, in a synchronized move). And men can only do the fist bump, but at last Saturday’s game, I saw two of the women players jumping into the air, then wiggling their hips, followed by a bump, and not with their fists.

Then there were the simple hugs and squealing.  Can you imagine basketball players doing the wiggle-bump and hugging?

Not that the men weren’t trying. My daughter and I were sitting behind three ebullient macho La Sallites who would do a Green Archer move (pretending to shoot an arrow with a bow) every time their team scored. As the game built up, they would wiggle too, but not bump—and, yes, they did hug each other when the game ended in victory for them.

Volleyball finds close affinity to cultures like our own and Latin America’s. It’s a game where all we do has elements of performance and exhibition.  It wasn’t surprising too that beach volleyball would develop, or that the sport is popular in “naturist” camps in Europe. You know, “naturist” as in back to nature.

I’m wondering if, with time, we’ll adopt a new development, that of the “libero player,” each team having one such player specializing in defensive skills and wearing a different jersey color. She is not allowed to serve and there are all kinds of rules on how she works on the defense.

Volleyball will fly high in the Philippines, drawing larger crowds each year and, I hope, it will spill over to make us more internationally competitive. Several of the star volleyball players are graduating, but I am certain we will continue to hear of them, if not cheer them on in many more competitions.

Meanwhile, can I call on UP supporters to cheer our teams on this Thursday in the championship round? At 3 p.m. it’s women’s football, UP playing La Salle; and at 5 p.m. it’s the men, UP versus Ateneo, in a game dedicated to cancer fighter and football player Rogie Maglinas. Both games will be at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

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TAGS: sports, UAAP, University Athletic Association of the Philippines, volleyball, women’s volleyball
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