"For 10 years everything stopped everywhere in China," says Yuan. "But since 1978, when the National People's Congress set a new policy of openness and reform, 152 Chinese athletes have won 230 world titles. We have had exchanges with 139 countries and 5,000 visits abroad by 60,000 athletes. That's a very large step in a very short time."
Yuan was spared the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution because he was the son of an average peasant and, therefore, was considered politically reliable according to Mao's caste system. On the other hand, in 1966 Yuan was a setter on the national volleyball team and a student at Nanjing Sports Institute. Being a student made him an intellectual and, therefore, politically suspect. As a result, while he was not persecuted by the Red Guards as other intellectuals were, he did become the victim of a sort of circumstantial ostracism: He was unable to play volleyball because all of the team members had been sent home, unable to be a student because his institute—and all others—had closed down, and unable to work for eight years because the work for which he was trained, coaching, didn't exist.
"The Cultural Revolution arrived when I was at my peak as a player," says Yuan. "Afterward I tried to play. Although the spirit was willing, the flesh was not able. Those were my twilight years. During that time I spent much time studying by myself about volleyball teaching. I didn't involve myself in the fighting."
When the Cultural Revolution passed, China's athletes were in sorry shape. All had been sent home when the universities and training centers in the big cities were closed down, and if home was a poor farming area, which it often was, they were not only without training for at least five years, but they were also malnourished and prey to injury. City dwellers didn't fare much better. For example, a good 400-meter runner whose former coaches refused him protection on account of his bad class background, was sent to the countryside for three years. He tried to stay in shape by bounding and running in place, but when he attempted a comeback, the years of poor diet and heavy farm labor took their toll in torn tendons, and his athletic career was finished.
Beginning in 1976, Yuan's job was to restore women's volleyball to its previous level—fast. He did much more than that. Applying strict discipline and rigorous training methods, he led the Chinese women's national team from obscurity (14th in '76) to world dominance in five years. His teams won the World Cup in '81, the world championship in '82 and the Olympic gold medal in '84.
When he returned from the Los Angeles Games, Yuan was a hero. He was promoted to vice-minister of the Commission for Physical Culture and Sports and. in 1985, to membership on the Party's Central Committee. His book, My Way of Teaching, which was published in 1987, sold out the day it hit the bookstore shelves.
"What I failed to fulfill as a player, I tried to fulfill as a coach," Yuan says.
Zhang is a former gymnast who is now deputy director of the training bureau of the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports. He's a small man with a flat stomach and broad shoulders who looks younger than his 45 years, not handsome but virile, a man of action. He wore running shoes to my interview with him, and throughout it he perched on the cushion of an overstuffed sofa in the VIP reception room of the Beijing Gymnasium, as if awaiting a signal to vault its antimacassared arm and be gone.
Zhang, who's from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwest China, is the son of a forest worker (good class background) and a minor local official (good political background). The Cultural Revolution closed the book on Zhang's career as a gymnast, just as it did on Yuan's in volleyball, but Zhang scarcely felt the loss, even though his team finished fourth at the World Championships in 1962. "If I look back, I think the Cultural Revolution was a pity, because I'd begun to do well. But at the time I was very happy to have a rest," he said.
With no discernible regret, Zhang described the years from 1966 to '70 as a sort of prolonged spring vacation. "I traveled for four years from place to place, seeing all the famous sights in China," he said. "I didn't think much about politics. I only cared about free time to relax and make plans. I had free train tickets and free lodging and an allowance. I traveled with a gymnast from the women's team, and we were married in 1968."