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Opening Volley
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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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.

Several members 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 action."

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 recalls.

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 OFF.

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?"

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