For China’s Most Beloved Team, It’s the End of an Era
Entering the second week of the Tokyo Olympics, Chinese sports fans have had little reason for complaint. Despite missing out on a few winnable gold medals, most notably in ping pong and gymnastics, the country has largely continued its tradition of strong first-week performances. As of late Saturday, China had the most gold medals of any country and was tied with the United States for first in the overall medal count.
Yet there was one notable blemish: the unexpectedly poor performance of the Chinese women’s volleyball team, which failed to make it out of the group stage in Olympic competition for the first time since the People’s Republic began participating in the tournament in 1984.
The disappointing result didn’t come as a total surprise. For one, the team’s star player, Zhu Ting, was battling an injured wrist. Still, many Chinese believed that the team would find a way to replicate its success at the 2016 Rio Olympics and send coach Lang Ping into retirement a back-to-back champion.
Well, competitive sports can be cruel and unpredictable. For their part, the fans have been largely supportive. Defying stereotypes of China’s “gold medal or bust” attitude toward Olympic competition, most discussions online have framed the failure to advance as a learning experience. Of course, it helps that no team has done more to put Chinese sports on the map than women’s volleyball. More than just a collection of players, the Chinese women’s volleyball team has over the years become a spiritual totem of sorts for the People’s Republic, so much so that its players and coaches were featured in the grand finale of the country’s 70th anniversary celebrations in 2019.
To understand how volleyball came to occupy its lofty perch in the national consciousness, it helps to know where it started. In 1952, when the country’s new communist leaders established a National Sports Committee under People’s Liberation Army Marshall He Long, China didn’t even have a decent gymnasium, much less a professionalized training system. Starting from scratch, He — remembered today as “The Father of Sport in the New China” — mobilized cadres from all over the country and told them to recruit anyone they could find.
Soon, the country began to find its niche, and Chinese table tennis and badminton players made rapid progress up the global rankings. Yet success in the “three big balls” — soccer, basketball, and volleyball — proved elusive. This was a source of constant frustration to He, who in 1964 declared: “I will not be able to die in peace if I can’t improve our performance in the ‘three big balls!’”
Of the three, volleyball seemed like the country’s best shot. Beginning in the 1960s, famed Japanese volleyball coach Hirofumi Daimatsu turned the Japanese women’s volleyball team into a powerhouse, leading them to a record 175 consecutive victories. The sight of a fellow Asian nation routinely besting teams from Europe and the Americas gave He hope. At the invitation of He and Premier Zhou Enlai, Hirofumi visited China three times in 1964 and 1965, introducing players and coaches to his “devil’s training method,” a rigorous practice regimen characterized by high volume and multi-ball training.
Whatever progress the Chinese team made during those years was soon derailed by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Over much of the ensuing decade, the work of the National Sports Committee was suspended, and He Long himself was persecuted and died in 1969.
In 1976, as the country sought to put the turmoil of the previous decade behind it, former male volleyball player Yuan Weimin was named the head coach of the women’s team and tasked with making He’s dream a reality. Adopting the same training methods Hirofumi had brought to the country 12 years prior, Yuan would lead the team to its first Asian Championship in 1979, including a four-set upset of powerhouse Japan. Two years later, the team won the World Cup and became China’s first world champion in one of the “three big balls.”
At the time, China was in the early stages of reform and opening-up. It was a period of uncertainty, but also hope. On the one hand, Chinese were coming to grips with how far the country had fallen behind the rest of the world; on the other, they were optimistic that national rejuvenation and personal success could still be achieved through hard work.
The volleyball team’s victory felt like a shot in the arm. According to the People’s Daily, the team received more than 30,000 congratulatory letters, telegrams, and gifts within a month of claiming its first world championship. Overnight, star players like Lang Ping, Zhang Rongfang, and Sun Jinfang became household names and national heroes.
The growing popularity of television as the ’80s progressed also played a role in cementing the sport’s legacy. For the first time, fans could watch the matches live, rather than having to listen over the radio or wait until the next day’s newspaper. TVs were still relatively rare, so it was common for entire communities to crowd into a house or workplace auditorium for big matches, a communal experience many Chinese still recall fondly.
The state, too, was interested in the team’s success. In 1981, the central government called on all Chinese people to study the “spirit of women’s volleyball” and apply it to the tasks of national growth and socialist construction. The ideological campaign was a rousing success. Even today, many Chinese can recite the three elements that comprise the “spirit of women’s volleyball”: “Train hard, fight hard, and battle for the glory of our country!”
The team did not disappoint its new fans. Between 1981 and 1986, it became the first volleyball team to win five consecutive championships, including at the World Cup, World Championships, and the Olympics.
Today, China is a sporting powerhouse in far more than just volleyball, but the women’s volleyball team remains a popular favorite, in part because of their flair for the dramatic. In the final of the 2004 Athens Olympics, for example, they dropped the first two sets before roaring back to topple the Russian side. And in 2016, a series of lackluster performances in the group stage left them staring down a knockout match against defending champion Brazil. Just about everyone thought they would be eliminated. Naturally, they performed a miracle, beating Brazil in five sets on their way to another gold medal.
Interestingly, the team’s popularity even cuts across China’s increasingly polarized political landscape. For leftists, it is a symbol of what the country was capable of when it pooled its resources and devoted itself to a single task. Liberals, meanwhile, like to claim the team for themselves, as an icon of reform and opening-up.
No one represents the greatness and complexity of the team’s legacy more than its onetime star and current coach, Lang Ping. As the feared “Iron Hammer,” Lang played a core role in the team’s stunning run of success in the 1980s. After retiring in 1986, she followed the well-worn path to the United States where she became a coach. Over the next two decades, she bounced back and forth across the Pacific, leading China to a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics before arousing the ire of nationalists by coaching the U.S. to a gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
In 2013, Lang was re-named the head coach of the Chinese national team. Three years later, in 2016, they were back on top of the world.
This time, things did not go so smoothly. Overly reliant on an ailing Zhu Ting, Lang couldn’t conjure up any of her old magic. At an emotional press conference on Sunday, she apologized for the team’s futility and took full responsibility for the failure to advance: “Everyone has truly been so supportive and passionate, so I want to tell you all I’m sorry.”
“It has been an honor (to coach the team), but I’m also exhausted,” she added. “We have so many excellent young coaches, it’s time to let them lead a new Chinese team forward.”
When Lang retires from coaching after this year’s Olympics, it’ll indeed be the end of an era, not just for her, but for Chinese women’s volleyball, which seems primed for a couple of down years. That’s part of sports. Glory comes and goes, and we’ll all live through our share of wins and losses. Yet tradition matters, and if the past 45 years have proven anything, it’s that this team has the heart of a true champion.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Zhu Ting hits the ball during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Japan, July 29, 2021. Fred Lee/Getty Images via People Visual)