Brazil’s volleyball hero, a household name in his country, explains how his sport rivals football in the passion stakes, and describes missing his daughter’s birth to win Olympic gold, and playing on snow.
Ask someone which sport they most associate with Brazil and they will almost certainly say football. But there is another team game using a round ball that gets emotions running high in Latin America’s biggest country.
“We say in Brazil that football is a religion but volleyball is the most important sport,” says Giba, a three-time Olympic medallist who is a household name in his homeland.
Giba, who like all good Brazilian sports stars has a very long “real name” – Gilberto Amauri de Godoy Filho – played for some of the world’s top volleyball teams in his country and in Argentina, Italy, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. He won three World Championships and eight World League titles with Brazil, but his greatest moments came at the Olympic Games.
The high point was winning gold at the Athens 2004 Games – a triumph that sparked wild scenes back in Brazil. “The reaction when we came back with gold was unbelievable,” Giba recalls. “There were three million people in the streets of Sao Paulo to greet the team.”
However, Giba himself missed the party, with good reason. His daughter Nicoll had been born while he was in Athens, so he dashed back to his hometown, Curitiba, to see her. “She was born in the middle of the Games, on the 18th [of August], and we were champions on the 29th, so there were many different emotions,” he explains.
“I was coming back from the gym and I received the call saying she had been born, but I was very focused on the Olympics. My wife at the time knew that I was there to do that, to win an Olympic medal, and we had spoken about it before. But still, I missed the birth, so I had to come back with the gold medal!”
Giba went on to win two Olympic silver medals, at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. “They were two fantastic experiences – each Olympic Games is a different story,” he says. “We had three consecutive Olympic finals and that created satisfaction – few people in the world have three Olympic medals – but at the same time we were a bit sad not to get gold again. But this is sport. There is always another team on the other side who also worked really hard to get there.”
When Giba looks at his overflowing medal cabinet, three pieces of precious metal stand out. “Winning gold in Athens was the crowning moment of a period in which we won virtually everything – the World Championships, the World League, the World Cup – and then we finished it with Olympic gold, which is without a doubt the most important medal for an athlete. It’s the most important event. The dream of any athlete is to win Olympic gold.”
While Giba could probably walk down Oxford Street in London or through New York’s Times Square without attracting too much attention, back in Brazil things are rarely so simple. Not that he would complain.
“Volleyball carries great weight in Brazil, mainly because it is a family sport,” he explains. “You see when you have big games that mum, dad, children, grandparents go together. Everybody in Brazil grows up playing and watching volleyball. Even today everybody still recognises me and knows what titles Brazil has won. It’s a very well-recognised sport in the country.
“People always stop me. Today I went to collect my mother-in-law from the hospital and I had to stop all the time to talk to people – but for me there is nothing better than giving attention to these people who have supported us so much.”
Since retiring from top-level volleyball after London 2012, Giba has been busy. He studied journalism for three years in preparation to work for Brazilian television covering the volleyball tournament at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where the hosts won men’s gold for the third time, having also won it at Barcelona 1992.
“I studied journalism so I could tell the stories, because each game is a new book that you are telling,” he said. “Doing that job also helped me not to miss it too badly as I was there, courtside, for every game. The atmosphere [in the Maracanazinho] was incredible, it was a beautiful party.”
Giba was elected President of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) Athletes’ Commission in 2016, the role being to strengthen the links between players and the sport’s administrators and ensure that athletes’ interests are central to the Federation’s decisions. This year, he has also been promoting the inaugural FIVB Snow Volleyball World Tour, after playing in an exhibition game at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
It is a variation of his beloved sport that he hopes will one day be included on the full Olympic programme, as beach volleyball has been. “This is the idea and we are fighting hard, but we know we have lots of work to do, lots to show that it merits being an Olympic sport,” said Giba, who hopes snow volleyball might be considered for inclusion in the Olympic Winter Games 2026.
But before that, Giba is excited about the next Olympic Summer Games, in Tokyo next year. Having won a host of international tournaments in Japan, he knows what to expect.
“Tokyo 2020 will be marvellous,” he says. “Everything the Japanese do is done very well and is very well-organised, and on all six occasions I have been there it has been fantastic – as well as their culture being amazing, all the tournaments have been super well-organised, so I am expecting so much from these Olympic Games. The Japanese people really dedicate themselves to doing things properly.”
So can Brazil win a fourth Olympic gold medal in men’s volleyball there? “Without a doubt; they just need to stay among the top six and then we will see what happens,” Giba says. “The Olympics always give athletes extra energy and make them play even better. And Brazil will definitely have lots of fans there.”