In 1981, the world watched Lady Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles. Drawing less international attention, but a massive Chinese audience, was another 1980s televised wedding – that of Lang Ping and Bai Feng. Neither Lang nor Bai is blue-blooded. Bai was an unknown handball player. But Lang was different. As a national team volleyball player, she enjoyed almost royal status.
And she knows it. “Chinese people will remember me forever because of what I represented to the country,” Lang told the New York Times last year.
Better known as the “Iron Hammer” during her playing days, Lang led the country to a legendary gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, as well as a World Championship crown in 1982, and two World Cups in 1981 and 1985. She was so popular that her face was on postage stamps and stadiums were named after her.
After retiring, Lang left China. Most recently, she was the head coach of the US women’s volleyball team, helping the Americans win silver at the 2008 Beijing Games. Some of her erstwhile fans were unhappy, saying that she had forsaken her homeland.
Not any more. Lang is returning home to coach a local team, having inked a five-year deal to coach a club team in Guangzhou. Guangdong Hengda women’s club is reportedly paying her Rmb5 million ($732,000) a year.
But is it a step down? The 48-year-old Lang claims that she wants more flexibility to spend time with her family. “I still love volleyball but I’ve thought nothing about leading another national team to lift the Olympic champions title. It would be so tiring,” she said.
So she has opted for Hengda instead: “They [Hengda] showed me that they are taking the club and the sport seriously… It’s not just for the club but also for the marketing of the league that I am doing this.”
China’s vociferous internet community, however, detected financial motives. On Sina.com, a popular internet portal, one netizen wrote: “She came back because she was lured by the lucrative contract!” Another quipped: “Lang will go where the money flows.”
Many still believe that Lang will be worth her salary. The head coach of the Liaoning team, Yue Jinku, agrees that she will help to boost the profile of the domestic volleyball league, which has failed to attract local audiences and substantial sponsorship.
Despite volleyball’s popularity during each Olympic games, it lags far behind the domestic soccer and basketball leagues when it comes to funding, says Yue. “The league is struggling due to undeveloped marketing. Most of the teams in the league are yet to become professional due to the lack of sponsors,” Yue explains. “Lang’s move will make the players, coaches, and domestic companies aware of the potential value of the sport.”
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