Chinese can defend at home in 2008
ATHENS, Greece -- With the next Summer Games set for Beijing, China will have a chance to defend its women's volleyball gold medal without leaving home.
Ping Zhang led a determined rally past Russia with 25 points Saturday in the Olympic final, won by the Chinese 28-30, 25-27, 25-20, 25-23, 15-12.
After dropping the first two sets, China came back to tie -- staying a step ahead of the Russians in the final set. Yuehong Zhang ended it with a spike from the left side.
China's players began hugging and crying with joy on their side of the court, while a stunned Russia team sat on its bench in tears. This was China's first medal since a silver at Atlanta in 1996 and first gold since 1984.
"I don't remember the Chinese team's first victory -- I was too young," said setter Kun Feng, China's captain. "I didn't think about it at all. I was only fighting for the glory of victory."
Cuba, which had its streak of three straight golds stopped with a loss to China in the semifinals, beat Brazil for the bronze to soften the blow a bit. Earlier in the week, Brazil ended a disappointing tournament for the United States with a five-set win in the quarterfinals.
Ekaterina Gamova, the leading scorer in these games at age 23, had 33 points for the Russians -- who took their second straight silver.
Considered the gold medal favorite, China came into the match as the top team in four of the six major statistical categories -- spiking, serving, setting and receiving.
China hasn't blocked very well without injured 6-foot-5 middle Zhao Ruirui. If there was one opponent where China needed some long arms ready at the net, it was Russia -- with its 6-foot-8 star, Gamova.
She ended a grueling first set with a perfect spike, taking one of her long, fluid swings from the left side and letting it rip.
Russia, which lost to Cuba in the 2000 Olympic final, was on the brink of being sent to the bronze-medal game after falling behind by two sets to Brazil in the semifinals. The Russians rallied from deficits in each of the final three sets to win that match and secure a place in the championship.
But this one was just the opposite.
Ping had five points in the third set, closing with a kill and an ace, to help the Chinese stave off defeat. They didn't quit in the fourth, either, scoring the last four points to even the match.
"It's really hard to distinguish between the first two sets and the other three," Gamova said. "We kept on struggling and we kept on fighting."
Coach Nikolay Karpol couldn't explain his team's collapse -- at least not yet.
"We are going to analyze what happened," he said, "and we are going to provide the answer to that question publicly. Probably in a week's time."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press