Gold, gold, bronze. . . and nothing.
The string of Olympic medals won by the U.S. men's volleyball team came to a stunning end Monday night when it was knocked out of its home Olympics by a one-two foreign punch.
First, brawny Bulgaria won a dramatic fifth-set tiebreaker over the Americans to take one of the final two quarterfinal spots in Pool A. Then, with some U.S. players watching from the stands, defending gold medalist Brazil grabbed the last spot with a straight-set win over Cuba, which already had clinched the top seed in Pool A.
"This is about as painful a thing as you can have," said captain Bob Ctvrtlik, whose third Olympics are his last. "I can't find a bright side. I hope the sun comes up tomorrow."
Bulgaria won 15-11, 13-15, 11-15, 15-5, 15-12, with the scoring in the fifth set coming on every serve. Fans at the Omni were on their feet on match point, but were left hushed when crafty Martin Stoev, who had frustrated the Americans all night with his shot selection, pushed the ball across the net and onto the floor.
Afterward, the U.S. players sprawled or slumped near their bench. They left the floor to cheers from a crowd that included Karch Kiraly _ who led America to gold medals in indoor volleyball in 1984 and 1988, and won beach volleyball's first gold medal Sunday. The United States won the bronze in 1992.
The quarterfinals are Wednesday, with the United States _ where the sport was born 101 years ago _ not included among the best eight teams in the world. The Americans (2-3) lost their last three matches.
"I am stunned," said Ctvrtlik, one of only three players remaining from the '88 gold medal team. "This is a darn good team we're on, and I'm just so disappointed that we didn't show it when we have this great home crowd. We didn't make the clutch plays.
"It just seems like we're a very specialized team and we need certain people to do certain things, and it just didn't seem like we got that."
Ctvrtlik and the other links to 1988 _ Jeff Stork and Scott Fortune _ will retire from the national team to play beach volleyball.