RETURN OF THE IRON HAMMER
Chinese women’s volleyball legend Lang Ping has been made head coach of the ailing national team, and must now face down a powerful adversary: sports bureaucracy
For decades, Chinese sports fans have wondered why their national teams always seem to be good at “small ball” sports, like ping-pong and badminton, but struggle with “big balls,” like basketball and soccer. Women’s volleyball, however, has occasionally proven to be an exception – the national team captured titles at several world championships throughout the 1980s, and at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The team, who for a time held a special place in the hearts of millions of Chinese, floundered in the following years, and at one point dropped out of the top three in the world. However, their fortunes began to pick up after the turn of the century, reaching their high point with a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, before sinking to bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and coming home empty-handed from London 2012. Now, hope has been rekindled by the arrival of a new head coach – an iconic figure who for many represents the glory of days gone by.
On April 25, Lang Ping was made head coach of the national women’s volleyball team. In China, the former ace spiker is a sporting icon in the league of Michael Jordan or David Beckham. Now, the public expects Lang to lead the women’s national team out of the doldrums and onto the podium at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In the wake of the team’s disappointing performances at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, three coaches had lost their jobs. By contrast, Lang has proven herself to be an excellent coach since 1991, leading several teams, most of them foreign, to victory. Known as Jenny Lang Ping in the US, she coached the US team to victory over China at the Beijing Olympics.
“The Iron Hammer”
In China in the 1980s, watching international women’s volleyball on TV was a national ritual. “We were used to seeing championships won by our ping-pong players, so we were eager to see breakthroughs in any of the three ‘big ball’ sports [volleyball, basketball and soccer] because they were more thrilling and required more teamwork,‘’ said Ms Yang, a college lecturer in Beijing in her late 30s who can still remember the names of most of the female volleyball players of the time, including, of course, Lang Ping. Lang’s astounding vertical leap and unstoppable spike earned her the nickname the “Iron Hammer.”
Lang began her volleyball career in Beijing in 1973 when she was 13 years old. In the five years between 1981 and 1986, she and her teammates claimed all five major world volleyball titles, including the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The most thrilling aspect of every game was the fierce competition and rivalry between the ace spikers of the generation: Lang, and her American and Cuban counterparts Flo Hyman and Mireya Luis.
In the 1980s, China was busy emerging from self-imposed isolation with Deng Xiaoping’s program of Reform and Opening-up, instilling in the populace a feeling of hope tinged with the inferiority that came with increased exposure to developed countries. The victory of the women’s volleyball team immediately became a source of pride and inspiration. In 1981, when the team won its first world championship, many in China took to the streets to celebrate. The slogan: “Revive China by learning from the national women’s volleyball team” was ubiquitous. Lang Ping became a leading light for Chinese sport, and the whole team, and even TV volleyball announcer Song Shixiong, bathed in the glow. All became national heroes.
“They were the symbol of our national unity at that time,” as Ms Yang said.
Lang and most of her teammates retired after the 1986 season, signaling the end of the golden age of the Chinese women’s volleyball team. Lang Ping moved on with her life. In 1987, she moved to the US with her husband, where she proceeded with a master’s degree in sports management, gave birth to a daughter, and became a coach for clubs and universities. Later, she served as a volleyball coach in Italy, Japan and Turkey. In her five-year stay in Italy, her team won at least one national championship per year. Her overseas career culminated in her becoming the head coach of the US women’s national team in 2005, and leading them to an Olympic silver medal at Beijing 2008.
Despite her long stay overseas, Lang has always had the full respect of the Chinese public - partly due to the fact that on several occasions she rushed back to help rescue the Chinese team. In 1990, she came back to act as captain of the struggling national women’s team for the world championships. In 1995, she returned again, this time as head coach of the national women’s team, before leaving in 1998 after suffering a series of heart attacks. On both occasions, she led low-seeded Chinese teams to runner-up.
Lang has also been a pioneer of reform in the country’s women’s volleyball system. In 2009, she became the first head coach of China’s first professional women’s volleyball team sponsored by the Guangzhou-based property giant Evergrande. The team dominated all the league, which at the time was comprised mostly of provincial government-sponsored teams.
When the national team lost a game to Thailand in September 2012, a humiliating result for Chinese fans still mindful of past glory, the nation’s volleyball-watching population unanimously agreed that a new coach was needed. When it was finally confirmed that Lang was in the running, everyone heaved a sigh of relief.
Ten days after she took the helm, Lang’s squad beat the Thai team at an international tournament, and claimed the championship. In early September, they won 19 games out of 20 at the Volleyball World Grand Prix 2013 sponsored by the International Volleyball Federation. They lost the final to Brazil, possibly because Lang decided to use less experienced players, in no hurry to see her players run ragged by an obviously stronger Brazilian team. For any other coach, such a tactic would have been career suicide, but not a dissenting voice was raised – it was accepted that Lang had her eyes on a different prize – one somewhat further down the road.
According to Hong Gang, a famous volleyball announcer with China Central Television (CCTV), the sensational turnaround Lang affected in her players was due to the fact that, in training or competition, her reputation and charisma compelled them to carry out her instructions to the letter – in Hong’s words, they “worship her as an idol.” Given Lang’s devotion and ability, her judgment is seen as infallible, even if it results in defeat. In a recent article for NewsChina’s Chinese-language edition, Hong concludes that Lang’s expertise and reputation are on course to make a tremendous difference.
However, Lang’s contribution alone, however great, may not be enough to fix Chinese volleyball. A Chinese saying goes: “Even the smartest housewife cannot cook without rice.” For a coach, “rice” is talented players. Without them, noted an editorial in the State-run People’s Daily in 2011, slogans hailing a return to the spirit of the 1980s team sound empty.
The reality, according to the People’s Daily article, is that in the Chinese women’s volleyball system, the height of a player is prioritized over her aptitude. The result is that Chinese players remain physically weaker than their European and US counterparts, and less agile than their Asian competitors. In Lang’s time, agility was the team’s trump card. Now, with limited investment in athletes, good rice is hard to find.
The national games, China’s largest domestic sports competition held once every four years, is the most important opportunity for athletes to show off their competitive power and forge a path into the Olympic team. With Olympic gold medals being the best indicator of sports officials’ performance and medalists earning plaudits for their local governments, the competition is something of a priority for politicians. However, the management and training of a 12-member volleyball team costs a considerable amount of money, and given China’s overt “gold medal strategy,” the single gold medal available for volleyball is a poor investment compared to medal-rich sports like ping-pong and diving. As a result, many provinces have no volleyball team. Only 15 provinces joined the women’s volleyball competition at the national games in 2013, just under half of the number of provincial teams in the 1980s.
Where volleyball teams do exist, local coaches are given insufficient time and are always under pressure for short-term gains, causing training sessions to focus on flashy techniques rather than basic skills. This has proven fatal when it comes to top international competitions that demand genuine finesse.
In recent years, there have been calls for China’s volleyball setup to model itself on professional European sports leagues, which are adept at attracting the strongest players from around the world. A professional volleyball league has been established in China, but teams are still controlled by local sports authorities, and highly competitive matches with the potential to thrill audiences and potential sponsors are yet to be seen. Female volleyball players continue to struggle on humble pay.
The Evergrande club’s success is expected to serve as an example for the league to follow. Lang Ping has also repeatedly urged progress with the reform – in an interview with State-owned news agency Xinhua in 2011, she insisted that players be allowed to choose teams for themselves, including teams based overseas. Lang warned that if they don’t have the opportunity to play in both domestic and foreign professional leagues, Chinese volleyball players will lag further and further behind their foreign counterparts.
She may have several decades of victory to her name and the unquestioning support of an entire nation of fans, but China’s sports bureaucracy may prove too formidable of an opponent even for Lang.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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