On the last day of the Rio Olympics, China’s women volleyball team played Serbia for the gold. It was the most watched event in China as well over half of the TV sets in the country were tuned on the outcome.
When China won, it was the only gold of the three major team sports that China won from Rio, having fallen far short in basketball and football. Thus all of China was ready to fall in love with this sport all over again.
It was not easy. Chinese team qualified last in their pool play and had to face the top seed from the other pool. The top seed was Brazil, the defending Olympics champion of two previous Olympics in Beijing and London.
After beating Brazil in the fifth set, China had to face Netherlands, second seed and had beaten China in the preliminary play. After Netherlands, Serbia, China’s opponent in the gold medal round, had also beaten China in the preliminary round.
The United States team that beat Netherlands for the bronze medal had also beaten China in the pool play. U.S. was top seed after pool play but was upset by Serbia in the semifinal round. In other words, China was the underdog every step along the way.
Curiously, volleyball was least funded of the major Olympics teams in China. In fact one of the volleyball player complained about being poorly paid. “What we get as salary for a year is about what the basketball player gets in one game,” she said.
Coach Lang Ping was transformed from villain eight years ago to acclaimed hero of Rio Olympics. At the Beijing Olympics, Lang Ping coached the U.S. team that defeated China in the semifinal and went on a silver medal, losing to Brazil in the gold medal round.
Lang Ping, after leading China to the gold at the LA Olympics in 1984 as the MVP striker, left China to study sports management in the U.S. After graduation she became a coach for professional volleyball teams in the U.S., Japan and Italy.
Fans in China were unhappy with Lang for not coaching in China, not taking into account the lack of a level of compensation that would be competitive with the international market.
Lang was persuaded to return and accept the coaching role with the stipulation that she would run the team with total control and no interference from the sporting authorities and government officials.
Since taking over China’s national team in 2013, Lang has been the mother to the team. She even bought protein supplement from the U.S., out of her own pocket, to give to the players while in training to boost their nutritional in take and supplement an indifferent training table.
Her captain, Hui Ruoqi, had to miss several months of practice and workout as she underwent surgery to correct a heart condition. When Hui returned to the team, Lang monitored her conditions daily. Happily, Hui struck the match-ending kill for the gold.
When assembling the national team, Lang noticed that Zhu Ting was missing from the list of candidates. She had seen Zhu played previously and remembered her and asked about her.
Zhu had been relegated to second tier level for regional competition before Lang rescued her. At the Olympics, Zhu was voted the most valuable player, as was Lang in LA. In the just the gold medal round, the 6 foot four inch Zhu notched 25 kills against Serbia.
(By the way, Zhu was not the tallest player on the team. All except for the libero—the defensive specialist that spend a lot of time rolling on the floor digging for balls to keep them in play—were over six foot including 6-5 and 6-6. They must have gotten proper nutrition from somewhere.)
After Rio, Zhu will be going to Turkey to play professional ball. Coach Lang felt that Zhu, at age 21, needed to play at the highest international level to continue to improve. So she introduced Zhu to a team she knew and more importantly the Dutch coach that had Lang’s confidence.
China’s sports leadership has always measured Olympics success by the number of gold medals won. Many projected wins did not come through at Rio and they were bracing for a disappointed Olympics. Women’s volleyball saved the day.
How will China perform in 2020 Tokyo? This team is young and talented. As Xinhua News noted, the team members are vivacious and some are as beautiful as runway models. They are made to be sports ambassadors for China.
The key is whether Beijing will elevate the importance of volleyball to be closer to that of football and basketball and properly nurture the current and next generation of athletes.
Before the team arrived in Rio, a classmate of Lang and ardent volleyball fan sent her one million renminbi to subsidize the team expenses. Upon winning, the now successful businessman congratulated the team with another gift of five million yuan.
China’s sports authority can’t afford to depend on fans and donors popping up to the rescue. Beijing needs to show the Super Mario of Tokyo (masquerading as prime minister) that Chinese women volleyball will continue to rule.