Or as Tannehill
puts it, "After China, everything seemed to be useless." Then he poses
a rhetorical question that could serve as Cowan's epitaph. "How could you
do better than world peace?"
BY THE early
'60s, China's table tennis players lorded over their sport the way Kenyan
marathoners dominate theirs today. Zhuang Zedong was best of them all, winning
world singles titles in 1961, '63 and '65. But in 1966 Mao launched the
Cultural Revolution. In a massive and bloodthirsty turning of the tables,
students and peasants took vengeance on teachers and intellectuals. As China
withdrew into a madness of its own making, millions were killed, jailed or
exiled to the countryside, to be reeducated in the ways of Mao's Little Red
skipped the worlds in 1967 and '69, members of the clannish table tennis
community tried to find out if the champion with the easy smile and a forehand
drive that former U.S. titlist Dick Miles called "the most perfectly
executed stroke in the game" had survived. "Dead or Alive?"
wondered a caption beneath a photo of Zhuang that ran alongside an SI report
from the 1969 worlds. In fact Zhuang and other members of the team had been
jailed, charged with allying themselves with Mao's rival, Liu Shaochi—ironic,
given that Zhuang had once said, "I owe my entire table tennis success to
the study of Mao Zedong's philosophy." At that, he was lucky: Three other
Chinese table tennis greats committed suicide during the late 1960s, including
Rong Guotuan, who in '59 had become the first Chinese to win a world title in
Zhuang's role in
Ping-Pong Diplomacy catapulted him back into favor. When the Chinese team
returned the U.S. team's visit in 1972, Zhuang, by then a deputy in the
National People's Congress, served as delegation head. He performed card tricks
during airplane flights—making "the meticulously planned appear
spontaneous," to use Kissinger's phrase. He shared wisdom infused with as
much Zen as Mao. ("Though Ping-Pong is a highly competitive sport, there is
no real victory or defeat. There is always both. Just as there is no life
without death, there is no death without life. The whole world is unified like
this.") Upon returning to Beijing, Zhuang settled into a job as Minister of
Physical Culture and Sports.
Yet the heady
years of the early 1970s turned out to be only a pause before the chaos
returned. Attacked in 1976 for being too close to Mao's widow and the
discredited Gang of Four, Zhuang lost his ministerial position and had to find
work as a street sweeper. Then he was denounced publicly for, among other
things, "wearing a Swiss-made watch" and tossed once again into jail.
In '77 he reportedly used a belt to try to hang himself in his cell. The sudden
way China's political winds would shift—the back-and-forth rally of what and
who is in and out of favor—only underscores what a risk Zhuang took on that bus
The reward on
that risk has been bountiful. Within a year the People's Republic would join
the U.N., and the SALT talks would open a path to U.S.-Soviet détente.
Meanwhile, sports continued to play a central role in opening up China. Beijing
received IOC recognition in 1979 and sent a full delegation to the 1984
Olympics, taking some of the sting out of the Soviet Union's boycott of the Los
Angeles Games. When Deng Xiaoping took over, he introduced market reforms with
a declaration that "it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long
as it catches mice." The IOC awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in '01.
"The legacy is that we haven't bombed each other," says Tannehill.
"Without the make-love-not-war idea that Glenn [espoused], we might not be
UPON LEARNING of
Cowan's death, Zhuang wanted to know how Americans had reacted. In fact no news
outlet beyond the table tennis world carried an obituary. When Zhuang dies, he
pointed out, everyone in China will know. The irony of it: In the
individualistic society that mints and worships celebrities, Cowan is
forgotten; in collectivist China—where to be one in a million is to live among
a thousand more just like you—Zhuang is fully rehabilitated and heralded as a
man who forever changed his country's course. Ever the diplomat, Zhuang in 2006
hosted several American players and officials, as well as Fran Cowan, on a
35th-anniversary return visit to China. At dinner the last evening the group
sang a karaoke version of Let It Be in Glenn's honor.
"I only know
how to play Ping-Pong, how to hit the ball from this side of the table to the
other," Zhuang said last September before an audience at Southern Cal. Then
he got just right the sentiment at the heart of Let It Be: "Sometimes the
ball drops. Sometimes it goes out-of-bounds."
It's the kind of
existential musing that might as easily have come from Glenn Cowan, who
discovered the hard way that if the world leaves you off-kilter, you can't just
put in a new floor. But with someone else, a person to supply a Pong to your
Ping, that world might be brought into something closer to equilibrium.