At last week's world table tennis championships in Munich, Shigeo Ito of Japan won the men's singles title while Japan also took the Swaythling Cup (the equivalent of the Davis Cup), but much of the talk in the vast Eissporthalle, where the matches were held, was not about winners but losers—perhaps permanent losers. For almost two years now, small groups of interested men around the world have been quietly probing a baffling and possibly grisly sports whodunit. Politics, alleged multiple murder and, unlikely as it seems, table tennis are its ingredients. Specifically, the mystery concerns China's three-man international table tennis team, the world's best, last seen four years ago. Dead or alive, that is the question. If alive, where? If dead, were they murdered by Mao Tse-tung's Red Guards, as some table tennis followers suspect?
In Munich these questions were urgently debated as 503 players from 52 nations convened for the championships. At home in their respective countries the competitors had necessarily regarded the case of the vanishing Chinese team as a perplexing but essentially abstract riddle. (After all, one could not simply put through a call of inquiry to Peking.) But, gathered as a body fused by long-standing international friendships and rivalries and against the colorful and spectacular backdrop of a world championship, the rivals found a common preoccupation in the absence of the Chinese wizards. In the past it had been almost routine for the Chinese to descend on world tourneys with a contingent of 40 or more—by far the largest—that included players, newsmen, photographers, delegates, propagandizing interpreters, masseurs, cooks and even laundrymen.
The Red puzzle began two years ago at the last world championships in Stockholm when, with only three weeks' prior notification to the tournament organizers, the Chinese, then holders of all the major titles, abruptly and without explanation withdrew their entries (SI, May 1, 1967). Since the International Table Tennis Federation is the world's largest and most inclusive association governing a single sport (94 member nations), requests for information on the Chinese dropouts were immediately broadcast along its vast international grapevine. The most seemingly reliable answer came back to Hans Alser, the Swedish champion, who had made tours to China and acquired contacts. Alser reported that the Chinese men's team, headed by three-time world champion Chuang Tse-tung, had been imprisoned as traitors. For some time, Alser's contacts claimed, Chuang and his teammates had been secret members of a counter-revolutionary anti-Mao group known as the Black Band, led by Mao's rival for power, Liu Shao-chi.
If true, it was an ironic disclosure. Ever since 1961, when the Chinese began their monotonous habit of toting world cups back to Peking, their defeated rivals (Japanese, Czechs, Swedes, Russians, North Koreans) had had the galling postchampionship chore of reading in the press claims imputed to world champion Chuang that he owed his success to the diligent study of the thoughts of Chairman Mao. This seemed nonsense, of course, to those who understood how great Chuang's forehand was, but it was annoying nonetheless.
The puzzle deepened 18 months ago in Yugoslavia. At a tournament near Belgrade the North Korean team, exchanging table tennis news with European players, startlingly reported that world champion Chuang, his coach and his teammates were dead. They had made a public apology after being released from jail but later had attempted to escape to Taiwan. Captured at the coast, the Koreans said, they were brought back to Peking and were publicly executed (torn apart) by the Red Guards.
It was to attempt to substantiate or disprove this rumor that I came to Munich. At first glance the playing floor of the Eissporthalle seemed a perfect place to get the job done. The large-scale international convention was so broad-based that I immediately spotted teams from the two Germanys, Ghana, Nigeria, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Most of the playing floor's area was necessarily given over to the 16 tables, each barriered into a championship court of 24' by 46'. Running completely around this huge rectangle was a narrow aisle that separated the courts from the 6,000 fans who were on hand for the important matches. That aisle was awash with the game's greats: Sido of Hungary, Ehrlich of Poland, Leach of England, Vana of Czechoslovakia. We had battled each other many times, but now, semiretired gladiators, we poked each other's midsections by way of greeting or for want of fluency in a common language.
Since the rumor of the Chinese killings had begun with the North Koreans, it was that team I searched for first. (Even they, I felt, would concede that Munich was outside their air space.) But the North Koreans, runners-up to Japan at the last worlds, turned out to be no-shows. Like the Chinese before them, they had withdrawn two weeks previously with a terse telegram that tendered neither explanation nor apology.
Continuing to circumnavigate that crowded aisle rimming the playing floor, I ran into a newsman who had covered previous world tourneys, Morley Myers of the Reuters sports desk in London. "Listen," I told him, "you people maintain a bureau in Peking. What's with the Chinese players? Dead or alive?"
"Don't you read the news?" Myers said. "Our bureau in Peking is silent. Our only accredited man there, Anthony Grey, has been under house arrest for 21 months."