The smiling faces and encouraging high-fives were immediately replaced by misty eyes and tight hugs after the 1.96-meter middle blocker Zhao Ruirui scored the decisive point to clinch the women's volleyball bronze medal for China.
The whole team got really emotional on Saturday at the court which witnessed all their inspiring victories and depressing losses at the Beijing Games.
China's head coach Chen Zhonghe turned back and walked a few steps away from a hilarious crowd, wiping off tears with the sleeve of his red T-shirt.
But the always-smiling man later managed to return calm, and went to shake hands with his Cuban counterpart Antonio Perdomo, whose disappointment could be easily read on the face after the 25-16, 21-25, 25-13 and 25-20 loss to China.
Perdomo's team, who once beat China 3-2 in preliminaries, finished their eighth Olympic journey with a fourth place.
They lost the chance to go to final after a straight-set loss to the United States, but they did once have chance to stand at the podium.
Although the host easily won the first set, Cuba, champion in 1992, 1996 and 2000, fought back to win the second. But China's powerful serving and solid blocking overpowered the Cuban who failed to win another set.
"We lost against two teams (the U.S. and China) we had beaten in qualifying matches. If we were to play them again you never know the result, because so many of the teams are of the same level," said Perdomo.
"The bronze medal is not gold, but in spite of that it still has a lot of value. It will be so nice if there could be two bronze medals, but there is only one," he said.
As the Cuban coach said, the "only one" bronze medal meant a lot to defending champion China, which was in dire need of a victory after consecutive losses.
The team, mixed with Athens veterans like Zhou Suhong and young players like Wang Yimei, were harshly criticized for "giving up easily in front of adversity" after a humiliating 3-0 loss to the world's No. 1 Brazil in semifinals.
"The bronze medal does not come easily. It's the unity of the whole team that sent us through. I have no regret and this is the most honorable moment in my life," said China's captain Feng Kun, who has been long haunted by the knee injuries and were criticized before to drag down the team for her unstable performance.
The veteran player, who was once regarded as the best women setter, has decided to retire after the Games.
"I can't describe my feeling now. It's hard to say Good-bye because I have been with this team for eight years. None of the medals is more important than a team fighting side by side. I hope the young players will carry on this team spirit," she said.
The unspeakable mixed feelings and hopes were shared by flag-waving Chinese supporters at the stands, whose emotions boiled when the patriotic song of "the Five-Star Red Flag" was played in the Capital Stadium and thousands started to sing in unison.
"They were so hopeless that I believed they gave up at the third set," said a home fan Yi Sheng, referring to the disappointing performances of the Chinese women in the semifinal against Brazil on Thursday. The defending champion lost surprisingly in straight sets and they only took 14 points in the third set.
"But today, I saw perseverance on them again, the most valuable quality which I think helped them win the Athens gold and will help to overcome the adversities to be stronger in the future, " the 28-year-old sales manager from a Beijing-based oil company told Xinhua.
"In this aspect, the bronze medal means much more than the gold medal," he said.
China's head coach Chen Zhonghe didn't bother to control tears at the post-match press conference. He described the process "very bitter and very tough" to revive from the depressing loss to Brazil.
"Some coaches even cried when we were trying to find out why we lost, let alone the girls. We have too much pressure as our mission to enter the final, but we didn't. Injuries and low spirit hampered us and I also failed to help the girls have a proper attitude towards win and lose," said Chen.
"My dream is to win the gold, but I'm satisfied with the result today as we finally overcame setbacks over the past four years, especially the past two weeks, and the girls really did a good job today."
Without making it clear whether to continue coaching the team, Chen, whose stint is going to end after the Beijing Games, said he has confidence in the future of Chinese women's volleyball.
"Young players, like Wang Yimei and Ma Yunwen, have great potentials. But remember, no pains, no gains. So long as they are ready to make efforts, the Chinese team will be a strong team in a few years," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency August 23, 2008)