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The golden years

Which gold medal in Rio carries the most weight for China?

The golden years

As we reported in last week’s issue, China’s medal tally at the Rio Olympics has been relatively lacklustre compared to prior games, even trailing the UK in the table, and coming third. Thankfully some national pride was salvaged by the women’s volleyball team which was led to victory on the penultimate day of this Olympiad by legendary head coach Lang Ping, a woman known in China as the “iron hammer”. For most Chinese, especially those of my generation who grew up in the 1980s, this medal brings back fond memories of a time when the country looked to be rapidly moving toward a more prosperous, open and liberal future.

It was in 1981, merely five years after Mao died and three years after Deng Xiaoping launched the reform and open-up policies, when China’s women’s volleyball team won its first World Cup. The win was also China’s first ever world title in a major sport that involved a ball but was not ping-pong.

As a middle-school student back then, I never touched a volleyball nor did I know anything about the game since we didn’t have TV at home. But I do remember the excitement of my brother and sister, both in college in our hometown, when they brought home the good news. They described spontaneous celebrations on their respective campuses, including joyful parades late into the night, chanting slogans such as “learn from the women’s volleyball team” and “revive China!” In the following five years, the volleyball team won four consecutive world titles, including the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The “volleyball girls”, with Lang as the star player, were such darlings and inspiring role-models for my compatriots that the phrase pinbo spirit (拼搏精神) was coined. It refers to an unyielding, hardworking and daredevil spirit, as best exemplified by these girls.

However, during the late 1980s, Lang and her original teammates retired. The national team’s performance subsequently waned. Coincidentally, China also became more conservative and tightly controlled, at least politically and ideologically, during that same period of volleyball decline.

Lang studied English at the Beijing Normal University. In 1987 she moved to the US to further her studies while escaping both fame and political infighting within the state-controlled sports apparatus. The ‘iron hammer’ returned to China in 1995 to become the head coach of the women’s volleyball team (despite being offered a monthly salary of just Rmb500). China won the silver medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Lang resigned a year later on health grounds. Later she became head coach of the US national team and led it to victory over China at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That turned her from a national hero to a traitor in some people’s eyes, including some senior Chinese officials.

What lured her back to Chinese volleyball in 2009 was not glory or an official pardon from the authorities (see WiC27), but the market economy. Property conglomerate China Evergrande offered Lang an attractive annual salary, Rmb5 million ($750,254) this time, to coach its women’s volleyball club. Her deal also allowed her to coach the national team for major games. That led to her becoming a sort of contractor to the national team. The fact that she was welcomed in this capacity was a break with the usually rigid procedures of the government-run sports bureaucracy (sometimes described as Stalinist) and a sign that welcome reform was dawning (see last week’s Talking Point for more on this theme). And thanks to their storied history, the victory of the women’s volleyball team meant – to many Chinese of my generation – that their gold medal counted for slightly more than any of the other 25 our country won. Lang deserves credit, given the team only placed fifth in London in 2012, and was not expected to triumph in 2016.

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]

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