Opening Volley (cont.)
But if the accounts to emerge from China over the past few decades are to be believed, two people thrown together by chance hastened the process. Asked last month if he knew of the American athlete who had inadvertently boarded the Chinese team bus, Kissinger said he did not.
Phil and Fran Cowan put a Ping-Pong table in a room of their home in New Rochelle, N.Y., sometime in the late '50s. Their son Glenn, a lefthander, was a natural at bowling, swimming and baseball. At age eight he began to play table tennis, at home with friends and at a club in town. "Our table was at an angle because the floor was off-kilter," Fran Cowan says today. "We said, 'We'll raise the table.' Then we said, 'That's not good because Glenn will be off-kilter.' So we put in a new floor. That was the beginning of it."
Glenn soon began to ply the tournament circuit and bring home trophies. At nationals as a 12-year-old he reached the semifinals playing one age group up. Out in Los Angeles for a tournament in 1964, Glenn told his dad, "Let's move out here." The Cowans relocated two years later to Bel Air, where Phil, a TV executive, took a job doing Hollywood p.r.
With a looping topspin forehand and a delicate touch, Glenn beat his great rival, John Tannehill of Ohio, in the under-17s at the 1967 U.S. Open in San Diego. The California fans mobbed him afterward. "With the onrush of the accolades, they couldn't give him enough ears," USTTA official Tim Boggan would later write of Cowan. Two years later Cowan won another U.S. Open, and by the time he qualified for the Nagoya worlds he already had a deal for a signature paddle. "Glenn was obsessed with table tennis," says his mother. "He was young, with nothing to worry about except to go and play what he loved."
But soon after the move to California, Cowan's father died of lung cancer at age 48. Glenn, 15, struggled to adapt. "It was a really hard time," Fran Cowan says. "He wanted long hair, so I said, 'I'm not gonna fight it.' When my husband was alive, he didn't have long hair. But there were things I could fight and others I had to let go."
Glenn embraced the hippie persona in all its hedonism. "I do escape in drugs," he once told Boggan, who was part of the U.S. entourage in China. "I choose to because they give me a world that fits my needs."? At the same time, Tannehill remembers, "he could go to the table and have perfect strokes without practicing very much at all. He had tremendous natural ability, more than anybody I've ever played."
Cowan had brought drugs to Japan, but thought enough to flush the stash down a hotel toilet before the team left for Hong Kong. On the eve of the team's passage into the People's Republic, Cowan met a woman at a bar and went home with her. History will gratefully record that she set the alarm, and Cowan returned to his hotel room by 5:30 a.m.
Several members of the USTTA's executive committee had tried to block Cowan's inclusion on the trip, out of concern for the image he would project. But a few hours later he joined 14 others who walked across a railroad bridge and into history as the first noncommunist group of Americans to visit China since Mao and his Red Army seized power in 1949. "The American team could not have been more representative of the U.S. if the State Department had handpicked it," longtime AP China correspondent John Roderick, who accompanied the team, told SI before he passed away in March. "It was what foreigners often thought of Americans: friendly, racially diverse, individualistic, original in thought and action."
From the moment they arrived in the People's Republic, members of the U.S. delegation ate food and more food. They sat through a ballet staged by Mao's wife honoring an all-female Red Army regiment and visited the Great Wall. At one point they discovered the Chinese had no idea that, not two years earlier, man had walked on the moon. Gazing out at peasants in fields from a train, Cowan said to Boggan, "I really believe life is simple. It's all the other people that make it complicated."
The Chinese threw matches to keep things close -- it was their way of honoring "friendship first." When Cowan realized that his victory in front of 18,000 people at Beijing's Capital Stadium was coming gift-wrapped, it was an affront to his idealism. "F--- you," he muttered at his opponent, according to Boggan. "I'd have beat you anyway."
Just before the team left Hong Kong, a newsman had asked Cowan if he wasn't afraid of being brainwashed. In fact, Cowan pursued exactly what he wanted during the eight-day trip. He tried to line up deals to promote Chinese table tennis equipment in the U.S., and he plotted to get a spot on the cover of LIFE. "There was a combination of shrewdness and innocence, like a hippie opportunist," Boggan recalls.
At one gathering an interpreter blanched when Cowan asked if Mao were dead or alive, and the crowd laughed when he hiked his foot up on a table to tie his shoe. "The Chinese had never seen a person with long hair and hippie ways," says Tannehill. "Thousands of people would surround him in the streets. They loved him but were also a little terrified of him, because China was very straitlaced then. They saw him as an extraterrestrial almost."
The abiding fear of USTTA president Steenhoven was that some gaffe would cause the Chinese to decline the offer of a return visit to the U.S., which Steenhoven was counting on to grow the sport. Jack Howard, Cowan's roommate, was charged with forestalling any international incidents. "Steenhoven said we don't need any clenched fists or stuff like that," recalls Boggan.
There were a few uncomfortable moments at the team's audience with Zhou in the Great Hall of the People when Cowan asked the Chinese premier for his opinion of the "hippie movement" in the U.S. For the record Zhou took Cowan seriously: "Young people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in common with the great majority -- remember that." And finally: "I wish you progress." The front-page headline in The New York Times, using the spelling of Zhou then prevalent, read CHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT OFF.