Times Staff Writer

As sellout crowds applauded its every move, the United States emerged as an international volleyball power last summer.

Or were the performances of the U.S. men's and women's teams at the 1984 Olympics more an aberration than a true indication of the Americans' development?

The U.S. men, playing in a boycott-depleted field in front of the decidedly pro-American crowds at the Long Beach Arena, won the gold medal in the absence of such perennial powers as the Soviet Union, Cuba and Poland.

The U.S. women won the silver medal in a field that was not nearly as affected by the Soviet-led boycott, but they were an unusual group by American standards. Seven of the 12 team members weathered the disappointment of the 1980 U.S.-led boycott and dedicated six years of their lives to training for the '84 Games.

The medals were the first ever won by the U.S. in Olympic volleyball competition and have spawned new interest in the sport.

But the American teams in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988 may have a difficult time matching the feats of their predecessors.

The men, at least, know that they'll be in Seoul. By winning the gold, they assured themselves a berth in the 1988 Games.

And Coach Marv Dunphy, who took over for Doug Beal two months ago, will have an experienced team. Kept intact by a program devised by the U.S. Volleyball Assn. that assures them the equivalent of from $30,000 to more than $60,000 a year, seven Olympic veterans are still with the team.

In Seoul, however, the world's elite programs will be pointing at the Americans, rather than vice versa, although Dunphy says, "It was hard to win the first time. People talk about who wasn't there, but we beat the Soviets four straight (2 1/2 months before the Olympics). And Brazil beat them. That gold was in no way, shape or form tarnished for the U.S. team. . . . I think it's a real plus to be on the high end. I like that position."

The status of the U.S. women is far more precarious. As Coach Terry Liskevych says, "We're starting from scratch."

Silver being much more difficult for the USVBA to market to sponsors than gold, there was no money incoming to keep the women together. Only one of the Olympians is still with the team. Others who are being counted on to come back are planning to spend another year abroad, where they can earn upwards of $40,000 a year playing in Japan and Italy. They aren't expected to return until next summer, or until about three months before the quadrennial women's world championships in Czechoslovakia in September 1986.

The world championship is a qualifier for the Olympics, which brings up another headache for Liskevych, who replaced Arie Selinger last fall.

The Americans haven't qualified for the '88 Games, and their appearance in Seoul may depend on beating Cuba to win the North American zone championship.

Liskevych regards Cuba as one of the top two teams in the world, just a notch below the Olympic champion Chinese. And the zone tournament will be played in Havana in the summer of 1987.

Said Liskevych: "We have a hard road ahead of us."

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