France made sure its first Olympic volleyball medal would be gold, beating the Russians 25-23, 25-17, 21-25, 21-25, 15-12 Saturday night in a breakthrough win for a country that had no history of success.
France had qualified for the Olympics four times before this year and made it as far as the quarterfinals only once in 1988.
But after a slow start that began with a 3-0 loss to the United States and a 2-3 record in pool play, the French knocked off Pool A winner Poland in a five-set quarterfinal before sweeping Argentina in the semis and beating the Russians in a dramatic final to earn gold.
Just when France seemed poised to blow the match, it mustered up enough energy to pull it out at the end. Jean Patry delivered a kill and an ace on back-to-back points to put the French ahead for good at 13-11.
Antoine Brizard then surprised the Russians when he sent a soft shot over the net instead of setting it to give France a match point.
France won it 15-12 when Maxim Mikhaylov’s shot went wide, sending the French pouring onto the court in celebration.
It was almost premature as the point went to replay, but the French got another chance to celebrate when the call was confirmed and the celebration resumed as the players sang and danced around the court in the near-empty arena.
This marked the first time a team that came into the Olympics without ever winning a medal in men’s volleyball went home with the gold since the U.S. did it in 1984 in Los Angeles.
France rallied after falling behind by four points late in the first set to jump out ahead of the Russians. The set turned when Dmitry Volkov was called for a centerline violation with the Russians up 22-18.
Back-to-back aces by Antoine Brizard got the French even at 22 and they closed out the set 25-23 when Trevor Clevenot dug out an attack by the Russians and then converted a kill.
That momentum carried over to the second set and the French seemed in control until the Russians mounted a rally similar to the one that gave them gold in 2012. They became the only team ever to win gold after falling behind two sets that year against Brazil.
There would be no repeat.
Argentina defeats Brazil for bronze
In the bronze medal game, Argentina won its second Olympics medal ever in men’s volleyball, rallying to beat Brazil 25-23, 20-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-13.
The only other medal the Argentinians won in the sport came in Seoul in 1988 when they also beat Brazil for the bronze.
Argentina lost the bronze medal game in 2000 in Sydney to Italy in its only other appearance in the medal round.
Agustin Loser’s block sealed the victory and the Argentinians poured out onto the court in celebration before dancing and singing.
“I can swear there’s nothing better than this,” setter Matías Sánchez said. “It was a dream we were chasing and now becomes a reality. Finally our second medal.”
Brazil failed to medal for the first time since 2000.
On the women’s side, the United States seeks its first gold medal ever on Sunday against Brazil. The Americans lost to Brazil in the gold medal game in 2008 and ’12. Serbia faces South Korea for the bronze.
Brazil has won gold in either men’s or women’s indoor volleyball in four straight Olympics with the men claiming the title in 2004 and ‘16 and the women in 2008 and ’12.