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June 16, 2008
Ping-Pong Diplomacy made the Beijing Games possible—but without two unlikely heroes, the great table tennis summit might never have occurred
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June 16, 2008

Opening Volley

Ping-Pong Diplomacy made the Beijing Games possible—but without two unlikely heroes, the great table tennis summit might never have occurred

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THE AMERICAN charged through his life until its pitiable end, courting the approval of posterity—and he wasn't Richard Nixon. His Chinese counterpart had a knack for the philosophical aphorism and always seemed to find himself in the maelstrom of events—and he wasn't Mao Zedong. ¶ During a brief and fateful window of time, the two alighted long enough to find each other. Both stood at the center of the U.S. table tennis team's visit to China in 1971, a diplomatic démarche that ended 22 years of self-imposed isolation from the West for the People's Republic and set in motion a chain of events that will culminate in the forthcoming Beijing Olympics. But the two men who catalyzed that trip weren't Henry Kissinger or Zhou Enlai either. ¶ This is a story, rather, to which the Great Man Theory doesn't apply. Instead circumstances elevated two ordinary men from the basement rec room of history. Before Nixon could go to China and touch off the change that has resulted from Ping-Pong Diplomacy, Glenn Cowan first had to get on a bus—and Zhuang Zedong had to be on the bus to greet him.

ON APRIL 4, 1971, at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, Cowan emerged from a practice venue. A member of the U.S. team, he had just rallied with England's Trevor Taylor and, hoping to catch a ride to the main stadium, flagged down a shuttle bus bearing the tournament logo. Climbing aboard, he found it filled with the Chinese team, which, as a condition of its participation, had been promised exclusive lodging and transportation.

From Cowan's shoulder-length hair and floppy hat, the passengers knew they had an exotic interloper in their midst even before spotting the usa on the back of his warmup jacket. Cowan, 19, leaned against the closed door of the bus for lack of a seat and, facing the mute stares of his fellow passengers, broke the silence. "I know my hat and hairstyle and clothes look funny to you," he said in English. "But in the U.S. lots of people look like this."

Zhuang, a 30-year-old, three-time world singles champion, watched from the back, listening to an interpreter's translation as the American held forth to no response. After a half-dozen years' absence from international competition, the Chinese had agreed to send their table tennis players to Japan in what they called the spirit of "friendship first, competition second." Yet on orders from Chairman Mao they weren't to pose for photos, exchange flags or initiate conversation with Americans. Indeed, Mao had once said, "Regard a Ping-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland." As Zhuang says today, "At that time we were still in the Cultural Revolution. Any exchange with Westerners would be [attacked] with vicious labels, such as 'treason' or 'spy.' So when this American guy got on the bus, nobody dared talk to him."

Yet in the awkward space of those moments, Zhuang felt himself torn. What of the charge to the team to put "friendship first"? What of the core teaching of Confucianism, in which he'd been raised, which holds nothing more precious than harmony? For all Zhuang knew, this American had boarded the bus to offer a greeting, and as the team's most accomplished player, the Chinese star felt a particular responsibility to reply in graceful kind. "I was thinking, China has been well-known as a country of hospitality for more than 5,000 years," he says. "If everyone ignores that American athlete, it would be ironic. Then I looked at him and thought, He's not involved in issuing policy. He's just an athlete, an ordinary person."

Zhuang stood and started up the aisle toward Cowan. His teammates urged him to stop and one tugged at his shirt to restrain him, but through the interpreter he began a conversation. "Even now," says Zhuang, "I can't forget the naive smile on his face."

Zhuang decided to give Cowan a gift. "At that time China was poor," he says. "We had nothing much but very small things, such as traditional wooden fans, emblems with Chairman Mao's portrait and silk handkerchiefs." He regarded them all as inadequate. "Since he is an American athlete, I thought I should give him a bigger present." He pulled from a bag a brocaded tapestry woven in the silk-producing city of Hangzhou.

Cowan patted his pockets and opened his own bag, looking in vain for something to offer in return. Then the interpreter asked Cowan if he knew who had greeted him. "Yes, the world champion Zhuang Zedong," Cowan replied. "And I hope your team does well."

By now the bus had reached the venue, where photographers captured the two smiling athletes disembarking, Cowan with the brocade and Zhuang at his side. The next day several Japanese newspapers ran front-page pictures, and the AP and Agence France Presse picked up the story. As a result, Zhuang was upbraided by the deputy of the Chinese delegation. "Chairman Mao told us we should differentiate between American policymakers and common people," Zhuang protested. "What was wrong with my action?"

Meanwhile, at an underground mall, Cowan had found a T-shirt that fused an American flag with a peace symbol above the words LET IT BE. At the stadium Cowan embraced Zhuang and gave him the T-shirt. According to The Little Ball Moves the Big Ball: Behind Ping-Pong Diplomacy, by People's Daily journalist Qian Jiang, Cowan then "dragged Zhuang in front of a TV camera." Asked if he'd like to visit China, Cowan replied that he would, touching off another day's worth of news stories.

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