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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 7, 2008 6:05 AM

The old skipper's in China

Posted by Steve Kelley

Hobbling on a bad hip that he says needs to be replaced, Jim Lefebvre met Rod Mar and me at the front of the Olympic Village on Thursday afternoon and entertained us with movie's worth of stories for two hours.

His team was playing in a scrimmage against the United States at 6 p.m., but you got the feeling Lefebvre was so grateful for this chance to talk baseball with people he had known for years that he would have stayed in the village's cafe until about 5:55.

The former Mariner manager may have lost a step, but he hasn't lost any of his fire. For two hours he bounced around the booth in the cafe like he was back at second base with the Dodgers. He'd jump up and ilillustate techniques. He was the same high-energy, motivational speaker he'd been in Seattle.

Lefebvre is the manager of China's Olympic baseball team and, while his team won't win a medal, he thinks the game has a great future in this country.

"There is no question in my mind, there is absolutely no question, that if China every commits itself to a baseball program it would be a world power in a very, very short period of time. They have incredible athletes here and I know where to get them and they're not in baseball."

I joked to him that if they weren't in baseball where was he going to get them? Team handball? Lefebvre looked shocked.

"Where did you come up with that?' he asked as if I had exposed a state secret.

For a period of time during training, the baseball team has shared a training facility with China's team handball squad and Lefebvre was amazed at the athleticism of the players.

"They're all big. They're tremendous athletes," Lefebvre said. "The first time I saw their practice I was sitting with our pitching coach at the time Bruce Hurst. We were just kind of lounging around and then the practice began and we saw some of the athleticism and we sat right up.

"They have great arm strength. They have that hand-eye coordination and they'll throw the crap out of the ball. They're tough players. I'd go over every day to watch them practice and just think, 'Wow, they'd look good in a baseball uniform.' I saw how agressive they were and I wished I had one of them."

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August 6, 2008 8:18 AM

Hobbled and hot, but Beijingers are more than welcoming

Posted by Steve Kelley

Gingerly I stepped off the bus as it parked in front of the North Star Media Village, my home for the next three weeks and -- whoosh -- three bright-faced Chinese college students rushed to my aid as if they thought I was about to topple into a flaming pit.

You see, the day before I left for China I stepped into a hole while I running and sprained an ankle in the fall. Now, after an 11-hour flight, I was hobbling. Put it this way, Jose Vidro could beat me in a race to first base. Getting off the bus I must have looked to those students like I was John McCain's grandfather.

But I'm not looking for pity. The point of this story is that, in these first days of the Olympic experience, even the usually stony-faced customs agents smiled and asked me if I was excited about the Games. China's people are making the world feel welcomed. From the time I got off the plane, people have jumped to lend me a hand. They pushed my baggage cart all the way through the airport to the bus. They wouldn't let me load my bags onto the bus. One of the kids even grabbed my elbow and led me to the seat. I was equal parts humiliated and grateful. At least early in my stay, I'm going to have to rely on the kindness of strangers while my ankle shrinks.

At the door of our high-rise apartment building, two uniformed kids, with sashes that say, "Welcome," open the door every single time anybody enters the building.

Now for the other side of the story. The air stinks. Imagine being inside a sock. That's what it feels and smells like here. There is a layer of air hanging over the city that looks like a wet, dirty dish towel. The air actually has texture and it holds in the heat like asbestos. If it stays this bad, I can't imagine how any athletes could run an 800 meters, let alone a marathon. Maybe a storm system will blow in before the track and field events. There are rumblings a storm is brewing that could disrupt the opening ceremony.

Still there is something magical about being here. As I was coming into the city on Monday, I remembered watching on TV as Richard Nixon's motorcade drove from the airport into downtown Beijing. China seemed so foreign then, it was like watching Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. That's how mysterious this place was then and some of that mystery still exists.

I've been fortunate enough to visit some exotic spots -- Afghanistan, Malawi, Kilimanjaro. This feels exotic like they felt. And every morning I wake up and remind myself I'm in China -- in China, covering the Olympics. That's pretty cool.

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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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