It must have been a hopeful time in 1971, when two superpowers thought they could actually settle their differences over a Ping-Pong table. That year the U.S. sent a table tennis team to China, the first sanctioned visit there by Americans since 1949. A year later a Chinese squad reciprocated by visiting the U.S., and world peace was at hand.
Well, it was nearer anyway. Ping-Pong didn't get the job done right away, not even the job of opening channels with China; normal diplomatic relations between the two countries weren't realized until 1979, and dealings still are fraught with conflict. But nobody doubts that it was the guys and gals wearing the short pants and wielding the little paddles who started the easing of tensions. Ping-Pong diplomacy—it's in all the history books.
Last Sunday some of those guys and gals had a little reunion at Stanford's Maples Pavilion 25 years after the Chinese team stopped off there on the last leg of its nationwide tour. The atmosphere wasn't so politically charged this time around—this was just an exhibition of some of China's finer players, who happen also to be among the world's finer players—but it was enough to remind us why the 1972 visit was so galvanizing.
The event then had been a true breakthrough, athletes reaching out to one another in a way that presidents and chairmen could not have. A player named Liang Geliang charmed everybody at a luncheon when he painstakingly carved up a hot dog. Told that Americans eat hot dogs with their hands, Liang joined in the laughter and, with his fingers, picked up every piece of the cut-up frankfurter, popping each in his mouth.
It was at Stanford, though, that Liang was most endearing. The tour had pitted the visitors against the best U.S. competition and, although China handily won each match as expected, the competition seemed portentous, as if international relations depended on sonic kill's last-twitch fibers. At Stanford, with the tour winding down, the U.S. didn't even field a team. In fact, the player who represented the hosts hadn't even known he would play Liang until minutes beforehand. "I had volunteered to usher," says Robert Shur, at the time a Stanford junior.
Liang, who would become a world champion, sized Shur up and with as much mercy as has ever been displayed on a court of play, beat him 21-6. "I could have played a whole lot better," Shur says, "and he'd still have beaten me 21-6."
On Sunday, China returned Liang to Maples Pavilion for a match with Shur, now a 45-year-old software writer who still lives in the Bay Area. Shur, who had pretty much given up table tennis after his Stanford years, had heard that Liang had not only become globally peripatetic—he is now coaching in Germany—but had also won three 40-and-over world titles in the last five years. ' "I'm not expecting too much," Shur said, reflecting on his prospects against Liang.
Much more nervous than when he was pulled out of the stands all those years ago, Shur took the court against Liang and was sized up once more. Liang used his top serve twice, and each overpowered his opponent. When Shur tried slam after slam, Liang, standing 15 feet behind the table, patiently lobbed the ball back. "He was very nice to me," Shur said.
Liang won 21-14, either Shur's level of play or international relations having improved In eight points in 25 years. Maybe in another quarter century, it was put to Shur, he'd make Liang sweat. Shur said he didn't think so.
Anyway, the point was that two countries had come a little closer because of their friendship match back in '72. That had been worth something, hadn't it, the improvement of Chinese-American relations? "You know," says Shur, "I'm afraid I've never really given it that much thought. At the time, I was just excited to play Ping-Pong."