No final desta história, há uma entrevista em vídeo em português com o técnico Reis Castro.

The 2020 international beach volleyball season is already under way, but most of the top teams in the world will only get on the sand when March and the big tournaments come around as they use the winter to prepare for the final portion of the qualification race for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The Brazilians, however, don’t have to bother with that.

The country’s national federation announced last October the two teams in each gender that will represent the nation in the Japanese capital next summer, the first months of 2020 will be used by the South Americans as additional preparation for the Tokyo Games.

Brazil and host Japan, which has one berth guaranteed in each gender, to create its own system to determine its Olympic teams. Every other nation chose to follow the qualification pathways created the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB).

The Brazilian qualification system was created under the reasonable assumption that the nation, one of the forces in the history of the sport, will have two teams in each gender inside the top 15 of the Olympic rankings when the international qualification period ends on June 14, 2020. With that in mind, the Brazilian Federation was able to determine which duos will be indicated to fill these spots eight months before they were even officially confirmed in a similar strategy that was adopted in the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Games.

The model was based on the sum of the best 10 results teams obtained during the 2019 World Championships and World Tour four- and five-star tournaments. In the end, Alison Cerutti and Álvaro Filho (5,600 points) and Evandro Gonçalves and Bruno Oscar Schmidt (5,500) secured the men’s berths, while Ágatha Bednarczuk and Duda Lisboa (6,320) and Ana Patrícia Ramos and Rebecca Cavalcanti (6,150) were the best among the women.

What did those involved in the Olympic race think about it?

“I was the one who suggested a system like this to the Brazilian Federation before the Rio Olympics,” said coach Rico de Freitas, who led Ágatha and Bárbara Seixas to silver in 2016 and most recently worked with Bárbara and Fernanda Berti, who didn’t qualify to Tokyo and split at the end of 2019.

“I think it’s a very fair system as all teams have the exact same opportunities to play and compete for points. What I like about it is that it allows teams to prepare to qualify to the Olympics first and then to start working towards winning a gold medal, which are completely different things.”

The son of the legendary Bebeto de Freitas, Rico, is on board with the qualification system/Marcio Rodrigues, ACE photo

In 2016, Brazil took three of its four teams to the Olympic semifinals and two to the finals, which included Alison-Bruno winning men’s gold. 

Reis Castro, the coach of Rebecca and Ana Patrícia, will be in the Olympics for the fourth-straight time in Tokyo after winning bronze with Larissa França and Juliana Felisberta in London 2012, finishing fourth in Rio with Larissa and Talita Antunes and fifth in Beijing 2008 with Larissa and Ana Paula Connelly.

“I definitely see more pros than cons,” the veteran coach said. “It gives us the opportunity to plan for the Olympics with pretty much an entire year ahead of us. We usually take the Brazilian Tour as a preparation for the World Tour and by already being qualified now we can go one step further and use the first half of the World Tour season as a preparation for the Olympics. Seeding points are obviously important, but we’ll develop a plan to split the season in blocks so we can slowly build our rhythm and improve our game to be at our peak at the Olympics.”

The benefits of the early announcement are expected to be noted outside the courts as well. The “Olympic team” label is a powerful tool for players to attract sponsors and partners in an Olympic year, especially for the host country. That was the case with most Brazilian teams before 2016.

Evandro and then-partner Pedro Solberg were among the teams that most benefited from the early announcement in 2016. The blocker expects that he and Bruno will have the same off-the-court success in the months leading to Tokyo, but right now the team has only one sponsor (Banco do Brasil) and one supporter (Rio de Janeiro City Hall). Bruno has three personal sponsors, all international brands — Oakley, Under Armour and Red Bull.

“Being confirmed in the Olympics early helped Pedro and I a lot before Rio,” Evandro said. “The fact that we were both from Rio also came handy and we secured quite a few sponsors before the Games. It doesn’t look like it will be the same now as Bruno and I just lost one of our main sponsors. We hope that the fact that we are confirmed in Tokyo helps us to get more partners.” 

Evandro (left) and then-partner Pedro Solberg secured multiple sponsors before the Rio 2016 Olympics/FIVB photo

Not everyone is as excited about the selection system, however.

For starters, it created some really odd situations, such as Brazil potentially winning the 2019 World Championships and securing Olympic spots in both genders but not guaranteeing those teams who were at the top of the podium would be in Tokyo. The same could have happened a few months later, when the country sent both men’s and women’s to an Olympic qualification event in China which was not even part of the nation’s internal rankings.

The legendary Ricardo Santos, who wasn’t involved in the Olympic race for the first time since the Sydney 2000 Games, would like to have seen a longer battle between the top teams of the country for the coveted Olympic spots.

“I’ve taken part in five Olympic races and I think the first four, when the Olympic ranking was used, were better in terms of preparing the teams,” the three-time Olympic medalist said. “When you limit the number of eligible events and reduce the qualification period it gets especially hard for the new teams because they don’t have time to develop as the tournaments go. I think this system lowers the bar a little bit, so I’d like to see a longer qualification period, with more tournaments being considered.”

Ricardo Santos
Brazil’s Ricardo Santos lunges for a ball during a 2018 tournament/Michael Gomez photography

The length of the qualification period was, indeed, a factor that created concern among the teams involved. But truth be told, the Brazilian Federation is not entirely to blame.

The original plan was to compile results during the 13 months between February 1, 2019, and February 28, 2020. But the cancellation of several World Tour events, including both the 2019 and 2020 Fort Lauderdale Majors, changed things.

“One aspect that made me a little concerned was the risk of an injury prematurely ending someone’s dream,” said Leandro Brachola, a Rio 2016 Olympic champion with Alison and Bruno and now the coach of Alison and Álvaro. “If any player had even a minor injury in the most critical time of last season and couldn’t play in a few tournaments between July and August, it would be very unlikely that that team would remain in contention. If the process was a little longer there would be more time for recovering and climbing the rankings and the risk would be mitigated.”

With the cancellations, the men’s teams had played only 14 eligible tournaments, one more than the women, when the qualification period actually ended, at the end of September, in Chetumal, Mexico. That meant the men’s teams discarded only four results, while the women’s could scratch their three worst finishes.

“I think that teams should have the freedom to decide which way they want to approach the Olympic qualification and not be all forced to compete in the exact same events,” he explained. “We, for example, had good results very early, so that would have allowed us to slow down in 2020 even if there were still points to be earned. But if some other team decides to take it easier in 2019 and go all in to the last qualification tournaments during the Olympic year, there’s nothing wrong with that. Making the qualification period more flexible and democratic would be very beneficial.”

The final results, however, cannot probably be put in check because of the shorter-than-expected qualification period as the third-best teams, André Loyola-George Wanderley, with 4,810 points, and Carol Salgado-Maria Elisa Antonelli, with 5,020, were considerably behind the ones that qualified.

“I think the qualification period was long enough to show which teams had the conditions to compete at the Olympics,” Rico added. “We obviously had some events cancelled along the way and my team was directly impacted due to the change in our entry points before the major events, but I honestly don’t think they would have an impact in the final result.

“During the meetings with the Brazilian Federation, I actually suggested that the qualification period end in 2019 instead of February 2020, which was what they decided in the end, so I believe the time we had was more than enough to get the answers we were all looking for.”

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