TOKYO (Reuters) – Lang Ping, China’s “Iron Hammer” who made Olympic history by winning gold as both a player and a coach, heads to Tokyo and back into the Games spotlight as her team looks to defend the women’s volleyball title they won in 2016.
Lang was the subject of the 2020 documentary “The Iron Hammer” which detailed her four decade career in the sport, including her 1984 Los Angeles gold as a player and the team’s win in Rio under her guidance as head national women’s coach.
Defending gold, however, will not be easy for China, even with Zhu Ting, the 26-year-old ace regarded as one of the best volleyball players of all time.
The United States are currently No. 1 in the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) rankings, followed by China and Brazil.
The U.S. team is particularly eager to win its first Olympic gold, having gone silver-silver-bronze at the last three Olympics.
“Our core group of 23 Women’s National Teamers has done amazing work in the last 14 months,” said U.S. coach Karch Kiraly.
Expectations are also high for Japan as the sport returns to the place where it made its Olympic debut in 1964, when victory for the women’s team sent the country into raptures.
Kumi Nakada, head coach of Japan’s women’s team, will face off against Lang, 37 years after they competed as players in Los Angeles when Lang won gold and Nakada got bronze.
All teams face additional disruptions caused by measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic that delayed the Games by a year.
“It’s remarkable to make it possible for all athletes and coaches to attend the Olympics under such a fierce situation,” Lang, said after China defeated Japan in an Olympic test event in May.
In the men’s competition, Brazil is among the gold-medal favourites after it was undefeated throughout the 2019 FIVB World Cup.
Alan Souza, the 2019 World Cup’s most valuable player, is aiming for his first Olympic medal while setter Bruno Rezende is chasing his fourth consecutive Olympic medal.
Poland will be one of their main challengers as the 2018 world champions can field Wilfredo Leon, known as the “Cristiano Ronaldo of volleyball”.
The U.S. team, with 33-year-old veteran Matt Anderson, is another strong contender.
(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)