With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on the horizon, people around the world are heavy with anticipation for times when they join friends and family to cheer the athletes of their nation onto victory in this historic event honoring friendly competition among the international community. But examples of the power of sports as avenues of cultural understanding do not only come during Olympic season. One such role model is Lang Ping and her story showcases how an individual’s decision to engage with another culture benefited her life and the lives of others.
Lang, also known as “The Iron Hammer”, rose to prominence as a Chinese volleyball player, her talents and skills so renowned she has become a significant cultural icon in the country. Born in Tianjin, Lang herself was honored as the MVP of the sport during the 1984 Olympics. The expert outside hitter and her teammates pushed women’s volleyball to the forefront of Chinese sports discussions and offered the country victories outside of ping pong which had taken on a characterization as the sport in which the Chinese held an outright advantage. The multiple World Championships won by Lang and her teammates, culminating in their success during the 1984 Olympics provided new sources of pride for the Chinese nation during its historic transformation, a notable accomplishment further gilded by the fact that 1984 marked the People’s Republic’s return to the Olympic Games.
After these achievements, she moved to the U.S. to experience what she called a “normal life”, distancing herself from her national fame to explore a calmer existence and coaching the women’s volleyball team at the University of New Mexico. Honing her coaching with these young athletes over a three-year period, Lang then became the head coach of the Chinese national team, eventually leading the squad to a second place finish at the 1998 World Championship and a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics.
Following her decision to retire from playing the sport professionally due to health reasons in the late 1990s, Lang set her sights on a new challenge: coaching the U.S. National Team. Becoming the first foreign female to coach a major sport for Team USA in 2005, she carefully guided the team amid the shifting landscape of China-U.S. relations with great success. The climax came when Lang’s squad of American players faced off against her own country’s national team during the 2008 Summer Olympics at a match attended by both American president George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Lang’s team won the so called “Battle of Peace” 3 sets to China’s 2 and Lang’s pure dominance of the sport was on display.
Lang’s spectacular life and talent is displayed in a recently announced documentary entitled “The Iron Hammer” which not only tells her story but showcases her internal fortitude and commitment to greatness in her sport. Further, her ability to break barriers of gender inspired women of both nations to achieve new heights in the sport, a legacy that still engenders hope in the youth of day. Lang Ping’s choices show us all that certain loves surpass borders and how devotion to success, mentorship, and an ever- present desire to work hard are commonalities of Americans and the Chinese alike.