Chinese Volleyball: Game On

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

China's Wang Jie, left, hits the ball as Kerri Walsh of the U.S. defends during the women's beach volleyball final on Aug. 21

Before the Beijing Olympics, China's results in beach volleyball were hardly smashing. But at the Aug. 21 final, the country's women's side showed just how far they've come. After finishing 19th in the sport at the 2000 Games and 9th four years ago, Chinese teams took silver and bronze in Beijing. The second-placed pair of Tian Jia and Wang Jie weren't strong enough to knock off the U.S. powerhouse duo of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, who defended their gold medal from Athens. But the Americans clearly took notice of China. "Coming into this match, we knew pretty much all year that it could come down to a U.S.-Chinese final," said May-Treanor. "We knew that China would be going for it in this Olympic Games."

This year the Chinese women have staked their claim to a sport that has long been the stomping ground of the U.S., Brazil and Australia. With its cheap beer, goading deejay, bikini-clad cheerleaders and 80s pop hits cranked between points, the Chaoyang Park stadium seems more Manhattan Beach than Middle Kingdom.

The rain-delayed final was played under a steady drizzle. China took an early lead, but the Americans pushed ahead from a 17-17 tie to take the first set 21-18. The stadium distributed free plastic ponchos in pastel green, yellow, blue and pink that left the fans looking like soggy gumdrops. The rain fell harder in the second set. The players shrugged off the conditions. "It's harder being a fan than a player," May-Treanor said later of the rain. "This is another reason we play in swimsuits."

The Americans jumped out to a small lead in the second set, then the Chinese tied it at 18, prompting a joyous roar from the home fans. But the U.S. reeled off three unanswered points — capped by a quick Walsh smash down the middle — to claim the match 21-18, 21-18. It was the 108th consecutive victory for Walsh, 30, and May-Treanor, 31, a winning streak that's more than a year old.

After the match, a Chinese reporter questioned whether the Chinese side, having made history by making it to the gold medal match, lost its desire in the final. "We need to remember that U.S. beach volleyball has enjoyed a long history and development. In China it's still pretty new," responded Tian, a three-time Olympian. "They were too strong, too competitive. So the best thing we could do was relax."

Since the introduction of Olympic beach volleyball in 1996 the American teams have made the podium at every Games. China has played indoor volleyball competitively for decades, but it's only recently that they've focused on the outdoor game. On the men's side, the top-seeded Chinese squad of Wu Penggen and Xu "Tiny" Linyin lost to a German pair in the round of 16. So it was up to the women to make history. In addition to the silver for Tian and Wang, the Chinese team of Zhang Xi, 23, and Xue Chen, 19, beat Brazilians Renata Ribeiro and Talita Rocha for the bronze. Wang credited the attention paid the sport by state athletic officials for China's rapid improvement. "I believe that our leaders and coaches of the national team also have increased their support and financial input, that's why we have been able to achieve this result," she said. "I believe that today we have made a historical breakthrough in beach volleyball."

They seem unlikely to stop here. "The Chinese federation has done amazing things in the past few years," said Walsh. "They've been getting better and better. These girls are so young and so good. I can't even imagine what London is going to be like with these two teams."