What happened to China?
We usually write about the success stories. About how a team or a player has conquered the world.
But sometimes, we need to stop, and look around. Because there is a lot to learn in the failure stories, too.
The last one is the bombshell that team China dropped in the women’s tournament of the indoor volleyball competition at Tokyo 2020.
The 2016 Olympic champions from Rio, couldn’t make it out of the groups.
You most probably have heard the news, and whether you liked them as a team or not, is not relevant right now.
This is the first time in 37 years when China failed to qualify for the Olympic quarterfinals since the country began playing women's volleyball at the Olympic Games.
"It is even the first time in history that a volleyball team has known its destiny before the preliminary rounds ended," Wang Dazhao, a Beijing-based sports commentator, told the Global Times.
There are also many theories on why this happened.
The one that the Chinese fans like the most is around the next Olympic Games in Paris 2024. Some of them stated that maybe the Chinese team took Tokyo 2020 as a “warm-up” trip.
Analysts denied such suggestions, and we definitely do agree with them denying such presumptions.
We tend to believe that no professional team at any level would take the Competition of all the Competitions as a “joke”, or “warm up”. Actually, no professional team would take any competition as a “warm-up”. Sincerely, I haven’t heard a team or a player stating that they came to a tournament just to “warm up”. They might tell you that they learned the lessons, and it was a nice way to warm up for a next tournament, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t want to win.
All professional athletes do want to win. Or at least, all who reach the Olympic podiums. That’s what makes the differences. And if somebody suggests that team China could enter an Olympic court, and would not fight for a win, it might be a little bit offensive to these female professional athletes that have been training most of their lives to play at such competitions.
Moreover, don’t forget that an athlete’s career is unpredictable. And I doubt it a lot that anyone involved in sports, would miss the chance to perform good at the Olympics. How can they be sure that they will be in top form in 3-4 years? How can they be sure that the others will not be better than them?
I hope this makes it quite clear to the ones who believed team China just took a “warm-up” trip to Tokyo 2020.
Now, it is high time we delved into a deeper analysis of “What happened to China at Tokyo 2020?”
To start answering this question, we must turn the clock back to 2017, when China’s captain Zhu Ting suffered a wrist injury. According to Chinese women’s volleyball coach An Jiajie, in that year, Zhu accidentally fell on the floor and hit her wrist. That led to the injury that has been “following” Zhu in the past years, and is the root of the disease.
“My right wrist still hurts. I think it may be an old injury,” Zhu said at a press conference during the 2019 Women's Volleyball World Club Cup. By that time, she was representing Tianjin, and many would notice that she had some wrist problems.
However, Zhu continued on the same path, maintaining the same level, but maybe on the price of her health, meaning that the wrist situation would worsen. Even when she had to rest, she didn’t give herself enough time to do so, analysts believe.
"I think that it's surprising that Zhu Ting's injury is so severe. We have been giving her conservative treatment. We believed it was okay,” China’s head coach Lang Ping said after the loss to the Russian Olympic Committee.
"The most surprising thing is that Zhu Ting was injured so badly. We have been giving her conservative treatment. It used to be okay, but it would not work for a single fight,” The legendary coach also added that Ting’s injury had a great impact, and the attack and the blocking suffered.
Of course, fans are asking themselves why Zhu didn’t undergo any surgical treatment?
For Zhu Ting, the extra year of the Olympic postponement can also give the wrist rest to some extent, but it is very embarrassing in time to completely cure the wrist injury.
While the correct answer is only known by the main stakeholders, we can only suppose that for an athlete of Ting’s level, it might be close to a mission impossible to take the break to undergo such a surgery, and afterwards to take the time to recover. Especially with Olympics approaching (even when we had the unprecedented postponement of Tokyo 2020).
Now, the question that we are asking ourselves is if the injury of Ting be the main factor for China’s failure.
Personally, I am a fan of the theory that a great team (such as the one coached by Lang Ping) will never allow themselves to rely on one player only. Of course, this might be happening in an idealistic world. Truth to be told, we can observe that nowadays, especially in women’s volleyball, such events as “Оne-man-show” are not a rare case. However, my hope is that teams and coaches won’t be “pushing” only one star player, but will be able to find a way to prepare also the substitutes that could actually save the day in unexpected situations. We know that real talent is a rare gift, but we also know that hard work pays off (and sometimes pays even more to the not so much talented players).
Without further assumptions, let’s check what statistics can tell us about the matches that team China played at Tokyo 2020.
The already former Olympic champions were in Pool B of the Women’s tournament in the Indoor Volleyball Competition, where besides China, the teams of the USA, the Russian Olympic Committee, Italy, Argentina and Turkey were ready to enter the Olympic battle. The teams competed in a Single Round Robin System (meaning that each team play the remaining five in the same pool once).
China -Turkey 0-3
The big came on the first day of play in the Women’s tournament. China lost in three sets to Turkey (21-25, 14-25, 14-25). Turkey dominated on the court, and statistically, outclassed China on all counts (46 to 28 attacks, nine to four blocks, four to three aces).
China - USA 0-3
When everybody thought China would react, and only had a false start, the USA came to beat the Chinese again in three sets (29-27, 25-22, 25-21). This time around, China could find a proper answer on the block (11 to 10 in their favour), but USA showed strength on attack (58 to 45, and on the serving line; four to one).
China - ROC 2-3
In their next match, China met the Russian Olympic Committee. It was their first real hard-fought match, and the team of Lang Ping reminded of who they were. However, it was not enough to stop the Russian players and they lost at 2-3 (17-25, 25-23, 25-20, 25-27, 12-15). The Chinese were better on the serve (eight to one aces), but ROC pushed on the attack (77 to 63) and on the block (14 to 10).
China - Italy 3-0
The Italy match didn't play a key role in deciding the Chinese team's destiny, but was a "competition of honor," Chinese fans believe. And the players around Lang Ping would defend their honour successfully (25-21, 25-20, 26-24). They claimed a straight-set win over Italy. While the Italians were better on attack (43 to 37), and scored one more ace (three to two), the Chinese blocking worked better (10 to nine).
China - Argentina 3-0
Although they knew they would leave the competition without making it out of the pool, China delivered their second victory in the game against the Panthers (25-15, 25-22, 25-19). The Chinese players were well in control of what turned out to be their last match at the Olympics. They dominated in the different elements (47 to 34 attacks, nine to five blocks, six to two aces).
The two victories delivered by the Chinese team happened when they had already lost hope of proceeding ahead. And they happened without captain Zhu Ting playing in them. What calls the attention is that only in their last match, could China outperform the opponent on attack. Does this mean that in the previous games, the responsibility was on Zhu and the team couldn’t change their tactics that fast? It’s an open question whose answers will be found after a deeper analysis.
In the other components of the game, the Chinese players put up a fight, but seen by the score, it wasn’t enough to defend the Olympic title.
A heartful goodbye
After the final referee whistle of the match against Argentina, all the Chinese players bursted out into tears. The reason was not only because of the end of their Olympic journey, but also because the legendary Lang Ping is leaving her position as a head coach of the women’s national team.
The end of an era, is what many newspapers wrote, and we can’t help but agree.
“Coach Lang Ping bade a tearful goodbye to the sport she served, loved and helped grow over the past decades,” is what Volleyball World wrote.
Lang Ping gathered around her players, and also crying, said goodbye. Later on, she mentioned that she gave a piece of advice to her team. “Move forward, fight on”.
"We had a regretful experience here in Tokyo," explained the 60-year-old to Volleyball World. "The new generation has so much potential, and they will improve in the future. I hope they will not forget this Olympic experience and will learn from it and will perform well in three years in Paris."
Lang is a legendary Volleyball figure not only in China, but across the world. She had led China to gold at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. She is also “the guilty one” for China’s silver at Atlanta 1996, but this time her role was of a head coach. She also coached the USA women’s team, where at Beijing 2008, she helped the team winning the silver. In Rio 2016, she was leading the Chinese towards the gold, becoming the first person in volleyball to collect the Olympic title both as a player and as a coach.
What happened to China at Tokyo 2020 is still a hot topic that needs to be further explored. Although we could check statistics, we know that Volleyball is much more than that and many are the factors that impact a game.
Lang will be missed, for sure, but we know that she will stay close to the game and will continue on helping the sport grow.
And maybe she will find a new way to inspire the players who can only learn from this Olympic failure.
Photo credit: Volleyball World