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ALEXANDER WOLFF
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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Washington had its own reasons to pursue a closer relationship. A strident anticommunist throughout his career, President Nixon had begun to reassess the country behind the Bamboo Curtain. "There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation," Nixon had written in Foreign Affairs in 1967, a year before his election. In a speech in February 1971 Nixon had actually referred to "the People's Republic of China," not Communist or Red China—a first for a U.S. president. Although the Vietnam War raged and Beijing still ritually denounced the U.S. and its allies as "U.S. Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs," the realpolitik favored by Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, called for triangulation among the three world powers. Most immediately, an opening with China could pressure the Soviets in the stagnant Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. A month before the U.S. delegation was invited to China, the state department quietly lifted its ban on travel to that country.

"There had been about a year of back and forth," Kissinger says today. "China had sent us a specific proposal to come to Beijing, and we were on course to answer favorably. Then in the interim they invited the Ping-Pong team, and that reinforced in our minds what the Chinese had already told us secretly. Privately, we were torn. On the one hand the invitation reinforced what we already knew from their messages, yet on the other, we didn't want to get dragged into a domestic debate about China. We wanted to play it all very low key. As it turned out, it worked out well for us."

Kissinger understates the result. The U.S. team's tour—and the Chinese team's return visit a year later—would be triumphs of stagecraft in the service of statecraft, captivating the press and public as they advanced the interests of both nations. In his memoir White House Years, Kissinger refers to the Chinese knack for making "the meticulously planned appear spontaneous." And the invitation to the U.S. team, he says, was carefully planned: "Only Mao could have ordered this. And only Zhou could have orchestrated it."

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."

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