RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The Rio Games were the most competitive in decades on the volleyball court, with half a dozen nations vying for the men's gold that eventually went to host nation Brazil, and major upsets seen among the women's teams.
The world's top-rated men's team, the United States, lost its first two matches and was on the brink of elimination, but clawed back lost ground to reach the semifinals, only to be knocked out by Italy.
Hosts Brazil eliminated defending Olympic champions Russia and went on to win the gold medal by overcoming the powerful Italians, who had beaten them in the preliminary round.
"This was the most even men's volleyball Olympic since the 1980s. Any of six countries could have won the gold," said Raul Lozano, a former Argentine player who coached Iran's men to the quarterfinals.
"On the men's side we had eight teams that were fighting the entire Olympics for a medal. When the difference between the teams is such a small margin, it can go either way for any team," said top U.S. scorer and outside striker Matt Anderson.
The American women were favorites to win their first gold, but, like their men's team, had to settle for bronze.
China won gold against a surging Serbian team, which had never before reached the medal stage of the tournament, after knocking out Brazil, the reigning champions of the last two Olympics, in the quarter-finals.
The young Chinese team had lost to Serbia and the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, but persevered under the careful guidance of Lang Ping, one of the sport's top women's coaches who coached the United States to a silver medal in 2008.
There were no easy matches in the very competitive Pool B, whose top four teams all went on to the medal-winning matches, a sign of the high quality of the volleyball being played.
"There were upsets, long five-setters, which is great for the game," U.S. women's captain Christa Dietzen told Reuters. Professionalism has grown in European countries such as Italy, unlike the United States that has no professional volleyball, and no country is a powerhouse today, she said.
"The competitiveness has risen. It was anybody's Olympics," Dietzen said.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Jan Harvey