Minus any shining armor, Karpol every inch a Knight

Summer Olympics

September 23, 2000|By John Eisenberg

SYDNEY, Australia - The near-sellout crowd inside the Sydney Entertainment Centre was having a party yesterday afternoon, roaring with every point as Germany's women's volleyball team moved closer and closer to a major upset of Russia. The German players were exulting, embracing and playing to the crowd.

Russian coach Nikolai Karpol just kept burning timeouts.

A graying leftover from the Soviet era and a legend in volleyball circles for his success and his furious behavior on the sidelines, Karpol was a portrait of rage as he gathered his players around him and berated them with his face turning red, his arms waving wildly and his hands and hair shaking.

Ekaterina Gamova, the Russians' 6-foot-7 star, blinked back tears as Karpol jabbed an accusing finger in her face.

The crowd hooted, jeering Karpol for being a bully.

Say hello to Russia's Bob Knight, demanding and imperious, brilliant and frightening, a sporting czar wearing a gray suit, wire-rimmed glasses and utter contempt for imperfection.

He has stormed the sidelines and churned out champions for 20 years, surviving the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and the rise of a Cuban women's volleyball dynasty.

Don't come looking for a coach who has bowed to political correctness or any new-age philosophies about coaching women's athletes.

"Why are you so harsh with them on the sidelines?" he was asked yesterday.

Sitting on a dais, Karpol fiddled with the knobs on his translation headset. Sorry, couldn't hear the question. And don't ask it again.

When his Soviet team was down 2-0 in sets and three points away from losing the best-of-five gold-medal match at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Karpol called a timeout, benched his best players and watched the Soviets rally to win three sets and beat Peru.

His players were too afraid of him to lose.

When Karpol's latest Olympic team beat Cuba, the defending Olympic gold medalist, in a round-robin match earlier this week, Karpol didn't exactly celebrate.

"It means little," he said with a shrug. "This isn't the medal round."

His team took a 3-0 round-robin record into yesterday's match with 1-2 Germany, and all was well as the Russians won the first set and took the lead in the second. But then Germany rallied to win the set and also took the third set and built a lead in the fourth. The Russians played listlessly as Karpol seethed and shook and did everything but throw a chair across the floor. The crowd got behind the underdogs. An upset loomed.

When Germany's lead reached 18-11 in the fourth set (played to 25), Karpol rose from his chair with a slouch, signaled a timeout and unleashed a bitter harangue, his voice echoing through the arena. The Aussie crowd couldn't understand him, but no translation was needed.

The timeout didn't help. Germany continued to dominate. At 22-13, three points away from defeat, Karpol rose and asked for another timeout.

He began to rail. The substitutes moved away from the bench, pretending not to listen. Karpol waved his arms, jabbed the air and shouted as the players stared miserably at the floor, only occasionally summoning the nerve to raise their eyes.

The crowed booed.

The Russians finally woke up and rallied after that, converting spikes and digging German shots off the ground, but Germany still served for the match at 24-21.

"Triple match point!" shouted the public address announcer as the crowd cheered.

The ball was set for Germany's star, Hanka Paschale, but the Russians dug it out and took the point with a spike. Then they won two more points to even the score at 24-24.

The Germans served for the match twice more as the teams went back and forth - a set has to be won by two points - but Russia won both points, finally served for the set and converted a spike to complete a great escape, 28-26.

Two sets apiece.

Karpol jumped from his chair as the set-winning spike was converted, but instead of congratulating his players on staring down five match points and surviving, he put his hands in his pockets and went for a walk down to the other end of the court.

Never made eye contact. Never said an encouraging word.

The final set was a formality. The Russians raced to a 6-1 lead with Gamova converting three spikes and Germany obviously deflated after blowing the chance to win.

Not that Karpol was satisfied. He called a timeout at 8-3 and finally spoke to the players again, his hair bobbing and his face turning red as he gestured at the court and complained about some mistake.

After the Russians easily finished off the set to win the match, Karpol was asked if it bothered him that the fans disapproved of his surly motivational tactics.

"Only amateurs think that way," he grumbled. "I know my players. I know the ones I can raise my voice to and the ones I should whisper to."

What about his team's performance?

"Not good," he said. "Credit to the Germans."

And how did he explain his team's fourth-set comeback?

Karpol paused. Cleared his throat. Adjusted his glasses.

"This is typical of the Russian character," the old lion said.

End of answer. End of questions.

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