Ningbo Beilun Gym was packed that summer night in 2005. The
World Grand Prix Women's Volleyball Tournament had touched down in
Zhejiang Province and Chinese fans were beside themselves watching
China take on the US. Their hero had returned and the adoration was
obvious: "Lang Ping, we love you!"
The Chinese faithful were cheering for their homeland, but the
object of their affection came disguised as the opponent - she was
the US coach.
Chinese spectators show their support for Lang
Ping. The slogan reads "Go, Iron Hammer".
Mention the name Lang Ping to virtually any Chinese older than 20
and a smile creeps across their face. The "Iron Hammer", as she is
fondly remembered, is one of the most beloved figures in modern
Chinese history and helped turn China into a volleyball powerhouse.
Now, on the cusp of the Beijing Games, the current US coach faces the
very real possibility of confronting the country she still calls
home on the world's biggest stage. There are no guarantees that
China and the US will meet in the Olympics. But if they do there is
no doubt it will be a conflict of passions, as Chinese fans will be
forced to question their allegiances.
Xu Yihe, a 50-year-old Beijing resident, says he'd be proud of
Lang even if the US wins in Beijing at the cost of China.
"The fact that she was made the coach for the US volleyball team
is the recognition of her ability, which I, as a Chinese, am very
proud of," Xu says. "It would be a scandal if she deliberately
loses to the Chinese team just because she was born, bred and
trained in China."
The training Lang received in China seems to have given her a
magic touch in her coaching career.
Lang Ping shakes hands with Chinese head coach
Heading into last year's FIVB World Cup, an Olympic qualifying
event, Lang's US team was ranked eighth in the world - an Olympic
afterthought. But guided by her cool expertise, the US charged into
third place to snatch an early Olympic berth, defying all
"I'm very excited for the Olympic Games. It's very special for
me," she says on the phone from USA Volleyball headquarters in
Colorado Springs. "I wouldn't have really planned it four years
ago, it just happened. My only wish is that the USA team can have a
great performance in my hometown."
Lang is no newcomer to the Olympic stage having won gold playing
for China in 1984 and silver as China's coach in 1996. What will be
new and no doubt a little strange for the 47-year-old will be
sitting on the other side of the court, possibly in between China
and a medal. It is a controversial position for the coach, and not
a decision she took lightly.
"I waited to see what was happening in China. If there were too
many people against this decision I probably wouldn't have accepted
the job," she says. "I didn't want to give myself too much
During her deliberations, which she says lasted three months, a
huge public debate erupted in China, which she monitored closely.
Although some said they would feel betrayed if Lang sided with the
opposition, most seemed to support their hero in whatever she chose
There was, in fact, more to Lang's decision than just her
career. Her daughter Lydia, who is a US citizen born while Lang
studied at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, had just
turned 13. Wanting desperately to be near her daughter, Lang had
added incentive to take the job in the US.
"I had been doing a lot for China with coaching and playing and
now it was time to think about myself. I think people really
understood, I think they were great," she says.
Although she was apprehensive about her first visit to China
behind the US bench at the 2005 Grand Prix, she soon discovered the
public was as proud of her as ever, a recurring theme in places
like Hong Kong and Macau.
"Wherever we go the people are cheering for the US team," she
says. "Of course, they're cheering for China first, but when the US
plays another team, they always cheer for us."
There is at least one person in China who will not be cheering
for Lang and the Americans: Chen Zhonghe, China's current coach,
who was Lang's assistant when she was with China.
Chinese media have called previous meetings between the two
"heping matches", a combination of the coaches' last names meaning
"peaceful". It's a diplomatic way to bill a high-stakes showdown,
and even though Lang is sure Chen respects her decision and insists
their relationship is always professional, she senses some
misgivings from her former colleague about her current job.
"I'm pretty sure he's not 100 percent comfortable," she says.
"But we get along very well, even in the big tournaments, when we
meet we're always very professional I think we'll get used to
Whatever the outcome in Bejing, Lang remains fiercely loyal to
her Chinese roots and maintains her Chinese citizenship. She comes
back to China about twice a year, though it's hard for her to spend
much time in public since she has to deal with throngs of adoring
fans everywhere she goes. But her celebrity is a responsibility she
"I have to really make sure I do the right thing or say the
right thing, try to be positive because a lot of people see you as
a role model and you really give them a lot of encouragement for
their life or for their work. So I try to be a good role
Although the Iron Hammer will be pounding for a different team
this summer, her heart still beats for China.
(China Daily January 22, 2008)