China great wants youngsters to learn, on and off the court

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2008, 12:00am

Education is of paramount importance to athletes, says Lang

A lack of education for athletes could prevent China from becoming a true sporting super power, iconic volleyball coach Lang Ping has warned.

Lang, the key spiker in China's 1984 gold winning team who guides the US women's team, compared the two sports systems she has come to know intimately ahead of the tournament, starting on Saturday.

'I have learnt a lot from my job as the United States head coach,' said Lang. 'In the US it's a totally different culture. The athletes, most of whom are college graduates, are well-educated. We discuss the training programme together before making a joint decision.'

The scenario stands in stark contrast to China, where sportsmen and women received minimal schooling from an early age in order to concentrate on training. Confined to boarding school-style special sports schools for most of their career, the athletes often have to worry about their livelihood after retirement.

'As I always said, normal education is of paramount importance to athletes,' said Lang, 48, affectionately known as the 'Iron Hammer' in her playing days. 'A sporting career is fleeting. In the United States, I have seen retired athletes working as engineers or doctors.'

Chinese officials often talk about attaching more importance to the athletes' education but in reality they uphold the age-old tradition of 'glorifying the motherland' above everything.

But Lang, who helped China to four major titles in addition to the 1984 gold, certainly had worries of different sorts at the end of her playing days.

As the first sporting superstar to emerge from the decades of political turmoil and economic stagnation, Lang's celebrity meant she was subjected to intense scrutiny.

'I moved to the US because I wanted a normal life,' said Lang, who emigrated to the US in the late 1980s. 'I just wasn't able to go to malls and dine out in China. It was painful.'

She returned briefly in the mid-1990s to guide China to a runner-up finish at the 1996 Olympics, then spent six years coaching club volleyball in Italy. But her fans were certainly not impressed when she took over as the US women's national coach in late 2004.

'I think the fans are way more understanding of my choice today,' said Lang. 'In fact they should be proud of the fact that a Chinese is leading the mighty US team in the Olympics.'

As if the drama was not enough, the US and China are drawn in the same group in the Olympics, facing off on August 15. 'It is just a normal match,' said Lang. 'All I worry about is whether my players can hear my instructions amid sea of roars from the audience.'