Olympics preview: China looks to retain women's volleyball gold
By sportswriters Wei Hua, Wang Jingyu and Lu Xingji
HONG KONG, July 22 (Xinhua) -- Among all the Chinese sports teams, women's volleyball remains the most special one. After one year's postponement, the elite troop of China's Olympic delegation finally set off their trip for Tokyo 2020.
Dating back to 2016, the Chinese women's volleyball team put on a thrilling performance to win the Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro, in which all the Chinese people have long been reveling.
The team started as underdogs and ended up as champions. After a poor fourth-place finish in the group stage, most people thought the team's Olympic gold hope was diminished when it took on Brazil in the quarterfinals, against whom China had an inferior head-to-head record.
However, China staged a marvelous battle as it silenced the Maracanazinho by overturning the hosts 3-2. Then it turned on the afterburners to avenge the group loss on the Netherlands in the semifinals before a relatively dominant final over Serbia.
You can beat them, but you can never break them. It is the Chinese women's volleyball team, a team labeled with perseverance, courage and unity, the best things that sports can offer to the Chinese.
Obviously, the reigning champion shoulders a glorious mission to defend the title in the most "unusual" sporting gala.
Japan can be regarded as a blessed place for China, as it claimed the World Cup in Osaka 40 years ago, the first major title since the team's founding. And it rode the momentum to win another four consecutive titles from 1982 to 1986, including one World Cup, one Olympic Games and two World Championships. It was from then on, the team's victories have been fueling Chinese confidence. China believes the "women's volleyball spirit" is never outdated.
Almost two years ago, under the leadership of head coach Lang Ping, also in Japan, China won its fifth World Cup title after 1981, 1985, 2003 and 2015, days before China's national day.
"We aim to raise the national flag and play the national anthem every time we stand on the court," Lang's remarks after the 2019 World Cup excited the volleyball fans throughout China.
Lang, dubbed Iron Hammer for her cannon spikes in her playing days, returned to the coaching spot after China women's volleyball hit their lowest point when it only ranked a joint fifth place in the 2012 London Olympic Games and was stunned by Thailand in the final of Asian Cup in the same year.
Inviting foreign assistants, introducing the idea of a "big national team" to establish a talent pool to choose from, Lang quickly revived demoralized team to return to the elites of the volleyball world by winning two World Cup titles and one Olympic Champion. It is no exaggeration to say that the 60-year-old is the guarantee of China's performance.
If Lang is the soul of China off the pitch, then captain Zhu Ting is the pillar on it, whom the team is built around. The 26-year-old is an acquisition in Lang's stint, taking the baton that has been passed by the legendary to become a collector of trophies and a reaper of MVPs.
"The 6-foot-6 outside hitter is 26 years old, but she's already considered one of the greatest volleyball players of all time," commented Cable News Network.
Having spent three seasons with Turkish volleyball giant VakifBank Istanbul, Zhu has widened her horizons and gained more experience after Rio de Janeiro, the flag-bearer of China's delegation in the opening ceremony, will be under further "scrutiny" in Japan.
"Watching our national flag hoisted along with the national anthem is always my goal, and that of the Chinese women's volleyball team as well," Zhu expressed her ambitions ahead of the sporting extravaganza.
Ariake Arena, where the Olympic volleyball competition will be held, is not strange for China, as it has hosted test matches between China and Japan, while China also attended the Volleyball Nations League to warm up. Despite a lackluster start in VNL, China bounced back by registering seven consecutive victories to clinch a fifth-place finally.
China is indeed a strong contender for the top podium, but the defending champion has its own weak link that is the strength gap between the regulars and substitutes. Lang expects to have a game-changer if the starting line-up struggles or someone stands out when Zhu's spiking ability is blocked.
In Lang's opinion, the current situation is totally different from 2016, although part of her players has Olympic experience. Meanwhile, their opponents have progressed a lot in the past five years, China should start from scratch rather than playing with original rhythm.
"Brazil and USA are still at a high level, with Italy and Serbia in Europe progressing rapidly, as to the final rankings, it depends on the performance on the spot which will be the biggest challenge for us, maybe one key point will be the difference, " Lang told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.
According to the schedule, the final of women's volleyball will be held on the closing day, Chinese women's volleyball team is expected to put a fantastic end to the Chinese delegation, and a gold medal will be the best gift for Lang's possible last dance with her beloved team. Enditem