China gears up to defend women’s volleyball gold, recalls 24-year-old superstar Zhu Ting

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

With the trade war sharpening sentiment on both sides, the Chinese sports world is also beginning to revert to its patriotic norms as the next two Olympic Games approach.

Volleyball star Zhu Ting 朱婷 has been earning a seven-figure USD paycheck playing in the Turkish league, while picking up MVP honors at seemingly every tournament she enters.

But despite being the highest paid player — male or female — in the world, her club VakifBank has announced she will take a year-long leave of absence and return to China as the national team prepares to defend the Olympic title it won in Rio in 2016.

Zhu hasn’t yet decided which Chinese team she will join next season, but it makes sense — from a national team perspective, at least — if she can share with her Chinese teammates some of the skills she has honed playing overseas.

Standing 6-6 and still only 24 years old, she is a formidable force in the women’s game, and will undoubtedly be hyped by Chinese media next summer as one of the country’s potential stars in Tokyo.

Whether her teammates can provide a strong enough supporting cast remains to be seen.


Liberty vs China

Meanwhile, another Chinese women’s squad has been preparing for Tokyo, with the national basketball team playing against the WNBA’s New York Liberty this week.

As usual, Han Xu was the standout Chinese player — but this time, she was playing not for Team China, but for the Liberty.

Taken in the second round in last month’s draft, Han made her Liberty debut against China — incidentally, she made her Team China debut against the U.S. — and was the top scorer, with 19 points, in an 89-71 win. She also played a team-high 21 minutes.

Han was 6-for-8 from the floor and 7-for-8 from the line, while adding five rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. While the 19-year-old is certain to have more physical tests once the WNBA season gets underway later this month, the 6-9 center started as well as could have been hoped.

Han only had three training sessions with her new teammates, having arrived in New York last Sunday, but already she noticed some differences. “The facilities and the supporting team are fantastic. They care more about recovery and injuries,” she told Xinhua before the game.

Chinese teams across the sporting spectrum are notorious for overtraining their athletes, whom they view all too often as expendable. Fortunately, Han has now escaped that environment and can look to flourish in a new setting.

The preseason game drew an impressive 4,115 fans at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with team owner (and Alibaba exec) Joe Tsai lamenting the fact that the Liberty will be back in a smaller venue in Westchester County for the majority of their games this year.

But he said he’s committed to growing the team’s fan base, which brings up two main options. First, don’t be surprised if Barclays Center becomes a more regular home as Tsai tries to bring the Liberty back into the city.

Second, if Han can continue to star in her first season in the league, expect viewing figures in China to dwarf whatever the league had domestically last year.


Curling World Cup Grand Final Beijing

In other Olympic build-up news, pressure is mounting ahead of the 2022 Winter edition on home ice, with Chinese curlers looking to impress this week at the Curling World Cup Grand Final at the converted Shougang steel plant on the outskirts of Beijing.

The Chinese men’s team started well, even topping its group on the second day of competition, with none of the men’s, women’s, or mixed squads embarrassing themselves against the traditional winter sport powerhouses.

The Grand Plan — as it has long been in many of the less competitive Olympic disciplines — is that Chinese resources can allow its full-time athletes to catch up and overtake those from the rest of the world, who are often only semi-professional at best, given the lack of money in sports outside the top tier.

It stands to reason that China, with its extra funding, new and revamped venues, and imported foreign coaches, can start to compete for medals at the top level in sports like curling. The only question is how soon it will take to reach the top.

There is still time, but this week also marked 1,000 days to go until the 2022 Olympics, with the unveiling of the official countdown clock, the launch of a new winter sports documentary channel and the start of the Olympic volunteer program.

Short track speed skater Wu Dajing lined up alongside celebrities such as Jackie Chan and Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. — son of the man who initially announced Beijing had won the 2008 Games, earning him a lifetime of affection from the Chinese people.

The Chinese version of Samaranch Sr.’s biography was also released to coincide with the event. You’ll notice that much has changed at the top of the International Olympic Committee since Samaranch began his 21-year reign in 1980.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.