For the last three years, the United States has had the best men's volleyball team in the world. Through the first two games in a best-of-five match Saturday night against the Soviet Union, there was little doubt that the Americans deserved that distinction.
Playing before an enthusiastic pro-Soviet crowd of 8,300 in the championship game of the Goodwill Games, the United States needed only 52 minutes to win the first two games, both by a 15-8 score.
But the Soviets, perhaps inspired by the ill fate of the last team to lose to the United States in an important tournament, rallied, as they had so often during the week, and won the last three games, 15-11, 16-14, 15-10, in a dramatic match that lasted 3 hours 9 minutes.
The United States doesn't have to live too long with the defeat. It no doubt will meet the Soviets again two months from now in Paris at the world championships, a tournament that is much more significant in international volleyball than the Goodwill Games.
But make no mistake about it: The U.S. team wanted very badly to win this one.
"This was big because it was shown on television back home," said Steve Timmons, one of the Americans' best power players. "The world championships are bigger for us in terms of pure volleyball, but this was important for exposure. It's disappointing to lose."
Those who watched on television couldn't have been disappointed because the championship game was one of the most exciting events of the Goodwill Games, which close today with competition in three sports, a gymnastics exhibition and the closing ceremony.
The United States entered the final having lost only one game in its first four matches. The Soviet Union also was undefeated, but it had not been impressive, going five sets both before winning Wednesday night against France and Friday night in the semifinals against Japan.
The final was a rematch of the best contest in last year's World Cup at Tokyo, where the United States outlasted the Soviets in a match that lasted 3 hours 36 minutes, coming from behind, 11-3, in the fifth game to win, 15-12.
After last year, when the Soviets lost seven of nine matches to the United States, they changed coaches and replaced five players.
The capacity crowd at the Lenin Sports Palace expected to see better results Saturday night, as evidenced by the fact that the fans were cheering for the Soviets.
"The last time we played in the Soviet Union, we beat them in four straight matches, and the crowd began to cheer for us at the end," Timmons said.
But these were not fair-weather fans who came to cheer the Soviets Saturday night. They formed the most demonstrative crowd of the Goodwill Games, chanting "Sovietski Soyuz (Soviet Union)" throughout the match.
At one point, several policemen were dispatched to one end of the arena, where the fans were loudest, but there was never a security threat.
"We've been in places where we've had to dodge coins and have police escorts to get back to our hotel," Timmons said. "This wasn't a hostile crowd. It was a good crowd. It just supported its team, that's all."
One fan hoisted a sign that read: "Let friendship win." But it may be significant that he didn't display it until after the fourth set, when the Soviets tied the match at two games each.
The United States fell behind, 8-4, in the first game before scoring 11 straight points to win. It also scored the first four points of the second game, giving it 15 straight, before the Soviets managed to tie, 7-7. But then the Americans started another streak, winning eight of the next nine points to go ahead, 2-0.
U.S. Coach Marv Dunphy, formerly of Pepperdine, said later that his team didn't let down at that point.
"We know you have to win three games against good teams before you can relax," he said. "We play 50 to 70 international matches a year. We have enough experience in this type situation to know how to react."
But Timmons admitted the United States "went into the doldrums."
By the time the Americans rallied again, they were behind in the third game, 14-7. They scored the next four points before losing, 15-11.
The fourth game was crucial. The United States came from three points behind to lead, 14-13, and was serving at match point. But the Soviets scored the next three points to win, 16-14.
"That's the game we should have won," U.S. setter Dusty Dvorak said. "When you've got match point against a team and don't win, it takes a lot out of you. I don't think we ever recovered."
The Soviets won eight of the first nine points in the fifth game, allowed the Americans to come within three at 11-8 and then closed out with a 15-10 victory.
The crowd obviously was pleased, but the players on both sides seemed to enjoy the match almost as much. As the world's best two teams, they obviously respect each other. But there's more to it than that.
In last year's World Cup, the Americans, having beaten the Soviets to clinch the championship, still had to play a match against Czechoslovakia. A victory for the Czechs would have earned them second place and an automatic invitation to the 1988 Olympics. A victory for the United States would give the Soviets second place and the Olympic berth.
Even though the game was insignificant for the Americans, they beat the Czechs and gave the Soviets the Olympic bid. Soviet volleyball officials mentioned that often last week, praising the Americans as good sports on and off the court.
So now, it's on to Paris, where the Americans hope history repeats itself. Before winning the World Cup in Tokyo, they met the Soviets in South Korea and lost.
Asked last week if a loss to the Soviets here would indicate better days ahead at the world championships, American Karch Kiraly said: "Maybe that's not such a bad idea."
Late Saturday night, Dunphy thought it was a bad idea.
"People say you learn from losing," he said. "But I'd rather learn from winning."