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Volleyball Diplomacy

February 6, 2010 - Travel Wire Asia

I had the pleasure of being invited as media to the US Women’s National Volleyball Team friendly against Chinese professional club Evergrande while the U.S. Team was on a training trip to China. The event that brought in 9,000 Chinese fans was broadcast live on CCTV-5. Volleyball, Badminton, and Ping Pong players enjoy celebrity status. The events we reserve for picnics are Asian blood sports. So, when 2008 U.S. Olympic coach and Chinese Volleyball legend Lang Ping entered the stadium she received a welcome–the kind given in days before the tabloid disfiguring of sports luminaries–only given to the likes of (“Babe”) Didrikson Zaharias, Joe DiMaggio, Ron Santos or Joe Louis.

My assistant, Li Hui Qing (“Charisette”) and I stand 5’2″ and 5’7″ respectively, so our presence at the event made it look like a casting call for a  Chinese Gulliver’s travels. But, despite all the shouting and stooping during the pre-game media dinner at the owner’s five-star hotel, and all the courtesies afforded to the team and the press it was one of the most relaxed international caliber matches I have ever attended.The kudos go to Maggie Rausch, the strongest bi-lingual voice in journalism for professional sports in China, who organized the event’s public relations.

 Lonnie Hodge and Lang Ping

One western publication, that I don’t remember seeing at the tournament, wrote about the contest and criticized the behavior of the Chinese fans. They must have lost their way to Guangzhou Sports Gymnasium and wandered into another venue. The fans were orderly, enthusuastic and cheered for volleys prolonged by the US and Chinese teams. There was a lot more to cheer for on the Chinese side as the Americans lost all three games: 25-20, 25-14, 25-19 . No excuses need to be made for the Young American team though as they were battling a professional team with a 12-0 record and coached by 2008 U.S. Olympic Games Head Coach Lang (“Iron Hammer”) Ping, who might just know a bit about our tactics, with players that included 2008 U.S. Olympic Games silver medalist Nicole Davis (Stockton, Calif.) and U.S. Women’s National Team middle blocker Christa Harmotto (Aliquippa, Pa.). Evergrande’s also boasted Feng Kun, Zhou Suhong and Yang Hao, gold medalists at the 2004 Olympic Games and bronze medals at the 2008 Olympic Games.

The post event news conference with Hugh McCutcheon looked like and sounded like he was delivering a eulogy rather than post match comments. He clearly thought the U.S. should have performed better. I believe the group of Olympic hopefuls (no returning Olympians were present on the American side) who comprised the squad certainly have the talent to repeat American Olympic glory (we won) after more time together as a team. Megan Hodge (Sadly, no relation) from Durham, N.C., was one of three players who joined the U.S. Women’s National Team only the week before the meet-up in Guangzhou. Hodge, who is headed back to college classes at Penn State as I write, ran up 15 points on the Chinese, all via kills and with an astonishing 41 percent conversion rate. She’ll be a factor in any success we will have leading up to London.

Hodge in China


Xu Jiayin, the richest man in China, invested 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) into Evergrande Women’s Volleyball Club and with Lang Ping has fueled an even greater interest in the sport in China. He spared little expense to create an event I wish would have, despite the outcome, received more western press attention. The focus these days is on Google‘s possible exit from China, economic disparity, product deficiencies and human rights criticisms. Readers of my work articles know that while these are important issues I am a fan of engagement (and sports) and the oblique benefits that come when any country is spotlighted because of its involvement in international sports. We need a lot more Volleyball, Taekwondo, Boxing and Sports Diplomacy to give balance to our heavily skewed cultural views.

Congratulations to the Chinese team, Xu Jiayin, Lang Ping on their Grande season. And best wishes to Hugh and the U.S. team who will soon be a formidable opponents again in world volleyball play.



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