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.
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."
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
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."
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."