Chinese volleyball players celebrate their victory at the Olympic final on August 20 (XINHUA)
On August 23, there was an unusual sight at the international arrival wing of Beijing Capital International Airport, as hundreds of people were waiting patiently, gaily waving red banners with welcoming messages on them. "Women's volleyball team, welcome back home," said some. "Cheers for Chinese athletes," said others.
The crowds were not the usual ones awaiting the arrival of relatives or colleagues. They were there to greet the last batch of Chinese athletes returning from the 2016 Rio Olympics, especially the megastar women's volleyball team which had bagged gold just two days ago. Figures from China Central Television (CCTV) showed that the audience rating for the women's volleyball final was 70 percent on two CCTV channels.
"I am a big fan of the women's volleyball team, especially after Lang Ping became their coach," said Feng Yue, a 52-year-old Beijinger who was among the welcoming throng at the airport. “All the young players fought hard to win and I am excited that I am going to see them face to face."
Yang Zhishui, a student at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said he had watched the final breathlessly, crying when the Chinese team won. On learning the team would return to Beijing at 7:15 p.m., he told the Xinhua News Agency he had rushed to the airport with friends to give them an ovation when they landed.
Lang Ping, head coach of China's national women's volleyball team, waves to the welcoming crowds at the Beijing Capital International Airport on August 23 (XINHUA)
A legend is born
Since they won China's first volleyball gold at the Women's Volleyball World Cup in Tokyo in 1981 and the Women's World Championship in Peru in 1982 as well as the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the women's volleyball team has become an icon for all Chinese sports teams for their tenacity and fighting spirit. After 32 years, they can still inspire national adulation.
"I distinctly remember how the whole country celebrated in 1984, when I was only 8 years old," 40-year-old Beijinger Chen Yu told Beijing Review. "Everybody took part in the intense celebrations and since then, my parents have been keenly watching women's volleyball matches."
Spiker Lang Ping, who was nicknamed "Iron Hammer" at that time for her prowess, is a famous figure in China. Since retiring from the national team, Lang worked abroad in countries like Italy and the United States as a volleyball coach before she became the head coach of China's national team in 2013.
"Lang has been my idol since childhood," Chen said. "She is a legend. It is great to see her back on the Olympic stage with younger generations of the Chinese women' volleyball team."
Chen's daughter Xue Xiaofei, a high school student, also watched the game. "The match being on a Sunday morning Beijing time, it was family time for us," she told Beijing Review. "My mom forced me to go to bed early on Saturday night so that I could get up early for the game. We watched the match together, my parents, grandparents and I, and cheered for the Chinese team. After we won, I saw my mom crying. It was very touching."
It was a magical victory especially with the Chinese team initially suffering losses against the Netherlands, Serbia and the United States. However, they managed to finish fourth in the qualifiers, which got them into the quarterfinals where they upset the defending Olympic champions Brazil.
That victory beefed up the team's confidence. In the final match, despite losing the first set to Serbia, China won the three subsequent ones to claim victory. Lang became the first person to win a gold as both a player and coach.
"The spirit of the women's volleyball team" became an expression that frequently popped up in TV programs as well as family conversations.
"The spirit of the Chinese women's volleyball team is to never give up," Lang said during an interview with CCTV. "The spirit is always there, no matter whether we can finally win or not. My duty is to guide this young team to carry on this spirit."
After becoming the coach of the Chinese national team, Lang made a number of bold moves to reform it, including hand-picking young players who, though inexperienced, have potential.
"I hope more young people can love volleyball," Lang added during the interview.
On August 19, badminton player Lin Dan (front) gives a big hug to his rival Malaysian Lee Chong Wei after losing the match at the semi-final of the Rio Olympics (XINHUA)
The volleyball gold was China's last gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
With 70 medals, including 26 golds, and third place in the international medal tally, the Chinese squad generated a fortnight of entertainment and excitement at the Olympics. Many Chinese athletes recorded their personal bests and the audience, while enthralled to see strong rivals vying against each other, also lauded those who kept pushing their personal limits despite failing to get a medal.
For instance Chinese sailor Xu Lijia, who was disqualified for three rounds in the women's laser radial class and failed to make it to the finals, still won the respect and support of the audience with her persistence. Born with weak sight and hearing, Xu has worked hard both at academics and sports. She has a bachelor's degree from the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University and is now majoring in international management at the University of Southampton.
"I will not retire but try to take part in future Games," Xu said.
Race walking athlete Liu Hong reaches for gold at the 20-km race on August 19 (XINHUA)
Cheng Xunzhao won the bronze in the men's 90-kg judo event, marking the best Olympic performance by a Chinese male judoka. Xu Jiayu, 21, claimed the silver in the men's 100-meter backstroke, becoming China's first male Olympic backstroke medalist. The team of Tang Xingqiang, Xie Zhenye, Su Bingtian and Zhang Peimeng came fourth in the men's 4x100 meter relay, marking their best performance at the Olympics.
The tough competition had its magic moments too. A day after Zhao Shuai claimed the gold for taekwondo, his girlfriend, Zheng Shuyin, another taekwondo athlete, also struck gold.
"Zhao's victory inspired me to go full steam," Zheng said.
Diver Qin Kai went one step further. After his girlfriend He Zi won the silver in the women's 3-meter springboard, and while she was still on the victory stand, Qin rushed to her, got down on one knee and proposed with a diamond ring and a rose.
"At the London Olympics, I didn't win a gold and was upset. Then it was He Zi who gave me a big hug to cheer me up," Qin said after the proposal. "At that time, we were dating secretly and so her courage gave me a very warm feeling."
Cyclists Gong Jinjie (right) and Zhong Tianshi win the women's team sprint in the Rio Olympics on August 12, China's first cycling gold (XINHUA)
Catch ‘em young
Despite the applause for the women's volleyball team, other team sports like football and basketball in China are suffering a downturn. The Chinese men's basketball team performed badly, losing in all five group matches.
"It is urgent to train more youngsters," said Wang Fei, former coach of the men's basketball team. "Yi Jianlian, the main player, has participated in four Olympics and is going to retire in a few years."
Wang said young Chinese players today can easily earn more money by playing domestic matches. "So they don't play harder to reach a bigger stage. It is very short-sighted," he added. Wang gave the example of Brazil, where soccer is a national sport and there is a strong passion for the game. Whenever there is a football and a couple of friends around, Brazilians play soccer. "We should cultivate such passion for basketball among young Chinese," Wang said.
Su Bingtian (left) and Zhang Peimeng at a men's 4x100 meter relay match in the Rio Olympics on August 18 (XINHUA)
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is also concerned with engaging youngsters.
"In many ways, the sports that have come in signal a vision for how we want to present sport and how we want to use sport to engage at future Olympic Games," IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell told reporters in Rio de Janeiro. The goal is "to not just expect the youth of the world to come to us, but to use the Olympic program to reach out to young people."
In 2014, the IOC approved a new roadmap that allows the organizing committee of each Olympic Games greater flexibility to propose which sports should be included.
The Tokyo 2020 committee, the first to be able to take advantage of the new rule, proposed five new sports and on August 3, the IOC announced that surfing, skateboarding, karate, climbing as well as baseball/softball would debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Skateboarders are thrilled. A skateboarder in Beijing, identified only as Ke, said, "My parents always regarded it as a useless sport. But now I have ample reason for practicing."
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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