Full disclosure: CST editor Maggie Rauch was hired to handle public relations for the Evergrande-USA Volleyball Challenge.
On February 2, the U.S. women’s volleyball national training team lost to the Evergrande volleyball club, 3-0, in a match at Guangzhou Gymnasium. The team, coached by Hugh McCutcheon, who won gold with the US men’s team in 2008, faced “Jenny” Lang Ping, the 1984 gold medalist for China who led the US women’s team to a silver in Beijing.
It was a tough loss for the U.S. team, which dropped the middle set 25-12, but it was mostly made up of new players, and winning a volleyball match was not the trip’s only purpose.
Before the game, the US team spent five days training and facing intense media interest in a country that fell in love with volleyball after its women’s team won Olympic gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A dinner at the US consul general’s private residence and a big Chinese banquet with top volleyball officials were also on the team’s itinerary.
Guangzhou’s U.S. Consul General, Brian Goldbeck, praised the event for promoting friendly ties. With relations between the United States and China strained of late (need I mention the Internet censorship debate, furor over arms sales to Taiwan, President Obama’s plans to meet with the Dalai Lama, and the dispute over the RMB’s valuation?) this past week was a good time for a little sports diplomacy. And volleyball is a fitting sport to serve this purpose, as the US and China women’s teams have a healthy rivalry that’s about 30 years old, the same age as diplomatic ties between the two nations.
The match followed a successful 12-0 season for the Evergrande team, which moves from Division B to Division A of the Anta China Women’s Volleyball League. Evergrande Real Estate Group founded the team in the fall of 2009, investing 20 million yuan (about $3 million). It managed to lure one of China’s most recognized sports figures, Lang Ping, over from her home in Southern California to coach the team.
The presence of Lang and the financial backing of Evergrande allowed the team to bring on a trio of national team players from China’s 2008 Olympic bronze medal-winning team—Feng Kun, Zhou Suhong and Yang Hao. Two of America’s best—Nicole Davis and Christa Harmotto—rounded out a squad that dominated the league.
The Evergrande team is the first of its kind in China, as the others are all controlled by state sports administrations. Its games aired on prime time national television, significantly raising the profile of volleyball, already a popular sport in China. The buzz around Lang (nicknamed the “Iron Hammer” during her playing days) revealed big hopes for the growth of the league and development of the sport in China. At press conferences for the event, she frequently deflected questions about herself as a “savior” of the sport in China.
Lang said that for the level of play to improve and energy around the league to grow, more international players would be needed. “When Nicole and Christa get on the court, the whole team atmosphere changes,” she said of her two American players. “There is more passion. Chinese volleyball needs more international players. The different styles of play would invigorate the game here.” She referenced the international nature of the world’s top league in Italy, where she won a championship with only one Italian player on her team.
With the state sports administrations so heavily involved in the league, it’s unlikely that Lang’s vision of a truly international Chinese league will be realized soon. But she pointed out that in the Chinese Basketball Association, the presence of just two foreign players on each team has helped generate interest.
SCMP: Foreign players the answer if China wants best league (subscription required—free trial)
China Daily: Guangdong side urged to build up reserves
Tags: Christa Harmotto, Evergrande volleyball, Feng Kun, Hengda volleyball, Hugh McCutcheon, Nicole Davis, volleyball, Yang Hao, Zhou Suhong