Smith remains focus of beach volleyball feud Exemption from trials angers other U.S. players

Atlanta Olympics

July 22, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Sinjin Smith was a prominent figure at the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball trials last month in Baltimore, and he wasn't even there.

Hardly a news conference went by without Smith and teammate Carl Henkel coming under fire for their absence from the trials, even though they qualified first for the U.S. team by virtue of their standing as the top American team in the FIVB (international) Tour rankings.

The other men's Olympic contenders were quick to insinuate that the system was rigged and that the trials exemption received by Smith and Henkel essentially was a free pass for a team that was not good enough to qualify under the two-tiered double-elimination format of the trials.

Smith may not be able to change any minds about the qualification system, but as the first-ever Olympic beach volleyball competition begins tomorrow, Smith is hoping to prove that he still is a force in the one of the world's fastest-growing international sports. And, as the winningest tour player in the history of professional beach volleyball, he bristles at the notion that he is not here legitimately.

"There were no exemptions, and there never have been," Smith said recently. "There were two ways to qualify in beach volleyball. One team seeded through the international tour and the two top finishers in the trials qualified for the Olympics. All of the players had the opportunity to play internationally."

Of course, all of the top U.S. teams except Smith and Henkel chose to play on the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) Tour, which is in direct competition with FIVB, so Smith and Henkel earned the first Olympic berth without having to compete regularly against their chief American rivals. If this sounds like fallout from a turf war over control of sport, Smith says it didn't have to be that way.

"There's no tour war," he said. "There is no reason why AVP can't offer their players the opportunity to make money on the FIVB Tour. The FIVB opened the door to everybody and the AVP elected not to let their players participate.

"That's upsetting. They forced me to make that choice. I wanted to play and to have the opportunity to qualify either way. It was not a choice I wanted to make."

This is where the public statements on both sides don't tell the whole story. Smith has been quietly ostracized by the AVP players, who privately believe he betrayed the American tour and helped manipulate the FIVB qualifying rules to assure himself a place on the Olympic team.

"It's shocking to me that they would say that I have no right to be here when I followed the procedures everyone had the opportunity to follow," Smith said. "People who think that are either ill-informed or choose to be ignorant to reality . . . but the only way I can prove that to anybody is to do well in the Olympics."

Smith apparently feels betrayed himself. He was once a teammate of Olympic gold-medal favorite Karch Kiraly, and is troubled by the negative public comments that Kiraly and others have directed at him.

"I've never said anything bad about Karch," Smith said. "I thought we were friends. I didn't think there was a problem. I saw some of his comments and thought maybe he was misquoted."

Kiraly never has denied any of them, though most of his statements were directed more at the system than at Smith and Henkel personally.

"I don't have much of a problem with Sinjin, only the qualifying system," Kiraly said, "and I'll always have a problem with a system that gives exemptions. I think everybody should have to qualify the same way."

He did, however, say on several occasions in Baltimore that Smith and Henkel would not have been one of the top three teams at the trials, and indicated last week that he did not believe that they had any real chance of winning a gold medal in a sport that is dominated by Americans.

Kiraly and teammate Kent Steffes are considered the strongest U.S. entry, but they have not been dominating since the trials, where they had to qualify out of the losers bracket to earn their place on the Olympic squad. They have failed to win any of their past three AVP events and cannot take the U.S. team of Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh for granted, much less solid teams from Brazil, Argentina and Norway.

The top U.S. women's team -- Holly McPeak and Nancy Reno -- also bypassed the trials, but their Olympic seeding went unchallenged because there is little argument over their status as the top team in the United States, if not the world.

The U.S. teams that qualified at the trials in Baltimore -- Barbara Fontana Harris and Linda Hanley and Deb Richardson and Gail Castro -- also are considered medal candidates, though the event will be seeded so that the United States can only win two medals each in the men's and women's competition.

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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