Cowan had brought
drugs to Japan, but thought enough to flush the stash down a hotel toilet
before the team left for Hong Kong. On the eve of the team's passage into the
People's Republic, Cowan met a woman at a bar and went home with her. History
will gratefully record that she set the alarm, and Cowan returned to his hotel
room by 5:30 a.m.
of the USTTA's executive committee had tried to block Cowan's inclusion on the
trip, out of concern for the image he would project. But a few hours later he
joined 14 others who walked across a railroad bridge and into history as the
first noncommunist group of Americans to visit China since Mao and his Red Army
seized power in 1949. "The American team could not have been more
representative of the U.S. if the State Department had handpicked it,"
longtime AP China correspondent John Roderick, who accompanied the team, told
SI before he passed away in March. "It was what foreigners often thought of
Americans: friendly, racially diverse, individualistic, original in thought and
From the moment
they arrived in the People's Republic, members of the U.S. delegation ate food
and more food. They sat through a ballet staged by Mao's wife honoring an
all-female Red Army regiment and visited the Great Wall. At one point they
discovered the Chinese had no idea that, not two years earlier, man had walked
on the moon. Gazing out at peasants in fields from a train, Cowan said to
Boggan, "I really believe life is simple. It's all the other people that
make it complicated."
The Chinese threw
matches to keep things close—it was their way of honoring "friendship
first." When Cowan realized that his victory in front of 18,000 people at
Beijing's Capital Stadium was coming gift-wrapped, it was an affront to his
idealism. "F--- you," he muttered at his opponent, according to Boggan.
"I'd have beat you anyway."
Just before the
team left Hong Kong, a newsman had asked Cowan if he wasn't afraid of being
brainwashed. In fact, Cowan pursued exactly what he wanted during the eight-day
trip. He tried to line up deals to promote Chinese table tennis equipment in
the U.S., and he plotted to get a spot on the cover of LIFE. "There was a
combination of shrewdness and innocence, like a hippie opportunist," Boggan
At one gathering
an interpreter blanched when Cowan asked if Mao were dead or alive, and the
crowd laughed when he hiked his foot up on a table to tie his shoe. "The
Chinese had never seen a person with long hair and hippie ways," says
Tannehill. "Thousands of people would surround him in the streets. They
loved him but were also a little terrified of him, because China was very
straitlaced then. They saw him as an extraterrestrial almost."
The abiding fear
of USTTA president Steenhoven was that some gaffe would cause the Chinese to
decline the offer of a return visit to the U.S., which Steenhoven was counting
on to grow the sport. Jack Howard, Cowan's roommate, was charged with
forestalling any international incidents. "Steenhoven said we don't need
any clenched fists or stuff like that," recalls Boggan.
There were a few
uncomfortable moments at the team's audience with Zhou in the Great Hall of the
People when Cowan asked the Chinese premier for his opinion of the "hippie
movement" in the U.S. For the record Zhou took Cowan seriously: "Young
people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in
common with the great majority—remember that." And finally: "I wish you
progress." The front-page headline in The New York Times, using the
spelling of Zhou then prevalent, read CHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT
Ten days after
the tour, in a message delivered by the Pakistanis, Zhou told Nixon that
"the Chinese government reaffirms its willingness to receive publicly in
[Beijing] ... the President of the U.S. himself for a direct meeting and
discussion." The President and his national security adviser toasted what
Kissinger called "the most important communication that has come to an
American President since the end of World War II."
And just when
history might take itself too seriously, there was Cowan, telling the press
back in Hong Kong, "What I am is my message. I loved China. I loved the
Chinese. Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of
two in its arms?"