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Volleyball visionary: coach Lang Ping worth her weight in gold – and more

As one of the nation’s volleyball superstars, both as a player and coach, the Chinese people’s love and respect for Lang Ping has only grown over the years – even when she coached the US team to victory against China at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

And it reached hero status in Rio today when she somehow orchestrated an improbable gold medal for a Chinese team who looked anything but Olympic champions in the pool stages.

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While her former teammates found success as businesswomen or government officials, Lang, 56, remained in the sport – as a coach – since retiring from the national team in the 1980s.

From China to Italy, the US, Turkey and back to China, the legendary coach, who also led the Chinese team to be world champions four times as a player, has made the most of what she does best while travelling the world.

At the same time, Lang – imbued with an international vision and forthright opinions – has repeatedly rebuilt confidence in Chinese volleyball, while coping with the shackles of China’s sports bureaucracy.

Before senior sports officials talked her into once more coaching the national team last spring, Lang was paid 5 million yuan (HK$5.9 million) a year as head coach of Guangdong Evergrande Women’s Volleyball Club, creating a new round of volleyball fever in China.

Xu Jiayin, boss of the club’s owner, Evergrande Group, said “the national interest” took priority and gave Lang the green light to accept the authorities’ request.

The club promised that Lang’s contract would remain in place, and her salary unchanged, while she was away from the team.

The authorities’ invitation, and Xu’s support, reflected the public’s desire for Chinese women’s volleyball to return to its former glory, after failing to reach the final at the 2008 Olympics and losing their quarter-final in London in 2012.

Apart from her success as a player, her contribution as a national team coach has included a bronze medal at the 1995 World Cup, silver medals at the 1996 Olympic Games and 1998 world championships and a gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games.

Instead of becoming an official at China’s sports bureau, Lang left to study in the US after retiring in 1985.

According to her autobiography published in 1999, that decision was motivated mainly “to learn English and broaden my horizons”.

A second reason was a need to escape her fame: “Although I had retired, I couldn’t live a free life like ordinary people. People often recognised me and made me feel like not myself. I felt restricted even when I went shopping.”

She was also tired of the politics in China, where she became a scapegoat of local officials in Chenzhou, Hunan province, over a funding dispute for a training field in the city.

After spending about 10 years on the other side of the Pacific, where she lived with her husband and daughter, Lang accepted an official invitation in 1995 to coach an underperforming Chinese national team.

When she left the position after the team won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it was widely speculated that China’s sports watchdog was embroiled in a power struggle, although this was never officially confirmed.

Meanwhile, Lang headed overseas for more coaching assignments.

As head coach in the Italian professional volleyball league, she won the league championship and coach of the year award several times.

In 2005, Lang went on to coach of the US national team, who faced off with China in her home country at the 2008 Olympics. The US team defeated China 3-2.