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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 5, 2008 11:14 AM

Switching sides: From China, with love

Posted by Steve Kelley

Lang Ping and her teammates started this very different kind of revolution in China. They won a gold medal and turned a country wild for sports.

In 1984 in Los Angeles, while the Soviet Union boycotted the Summer Olympics reciprocating for the United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, China came. And in women's volleyball, China won.

Lang was the star of the team, all, ferocious, charismatic, a killer in volleyball's best sense of that word.

China rolled through Los Angeles on the way to gold and, when it came home, the players were treated like conquering warriors. That win opened a country's eyes to the possibilities of sport.

"I was surprised after we won that people were so excited," said Lang, late Tuesday afternoon, answering questions in both English and Chinese in a large auditorium in the Main Press Center. "It was a huge thing that happened in China. It was like a dream. At that time China wasn't an open door to the world. But since then the Chinese people believe that we can do well. And not just in sports.

"I think it gave the people confidence to have a better life. To connect with the rest of the world. I think that was more meaningful. Not just our success on the volleyball court."

USA Volleyball

Jenny Lang Ping.

Lang was the harbinger of hooper Yao Ming, the pioneer who cleared a path for gold medal diver Guo Jingjing. She was a significant part of the beginning of an athletic movement that is so profound, this country's heart practically will stop beating for the 10 seconds Liu Xiang runs in the finals of the 110 meter hurdles.

The Olympics are in Beijing, in large part because of the success of that volleyball team.

"Everybody here knows who she is," said Nicole Davis, a U.S. national team member since 2004. "She is such an historical figure in this country and I think that's a beautiful thing."

Even 24 years later. Even though she has been the United States coach for the past four years, Lang, who's American nickname is Jenny, still is one of China's most beloved figures.

Davis remembers a match played in the World Grand Prix in China against China in 2005. Lang's picture was on billboards around the arena. And, up in the cheap seats, Chinese fans were holding cards with Lang's picture and cheering for the U.S.

"That was a remarkable thing," Davis said. "Chinese people supporting our country. Supporting us.
"There have been times when we've had to be her bodyguards. People here just want to touch her. Mothers have thrown their babies at her. They just want to be near her. There's no parallel to that. Not Michael Jordan. Not anybody. I think the way she's respected here is extremely unique."

After her retirement from competition, Lang coached China to a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and coached for six seasons in the Italian professional league. Now she is coming home with a very different team, in a very familiar setting. Her U.S. team is ranked fourth in the world.

"This is a very unique Olympic Games for me," Lang said, "because I'm different now. I feel back home. There's just the feeling I'm back home. I don't feel there's any pressure on me. Maybe it's because I'm home, or maybe because I'm more mature. I feel like I can enjoy the Games and enjoy the process more, not just the results."

These next two-and-a-half weeks are a tribute to the power of sports and the force of Lang's personality.
China has emerged as a sporting power. It is a player in the world. And Jenny Lang Ping is the player who helped start the revolution.

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