How Ping Pong Changed the World

More than four decades after the People’s Republic of China and the United States met for the first time over an unlikely table – a ping pong one – Anglo-American author Nick Griffin is the first to explore the details in his book Ping Pong Diplomacy.

It was that first meeting of athletes in April of 1971 that ultimately led the administration of Richard Nixon to seek détente with what had been regarded as an implacable and shadowy enemy. It is a fascinating book, dwelling on the game as much as the diplomacy. Freelancer writer Victor Fic interviewed Griffin recently after reading the book to learn the details. The book is available through Amazon, hardcover, US$19.90, and is also on Kindle.

Q: How did the Beijing Olympics' ping pong match inspire your book?

A: I learned at the table tennis stadium that 300 million Chinese play at least weekly. I immediately wondered why?

Q: Is your work the first ever to examine ping pong's history – and uses?

A: More or less. No one had quite pieced together that the sport’s history is wrapped up in espionage, the biographies of idiosyncratic individuals and vital geopolitics.

Q: Explain how English inventor Montagu – a Communist – sought to extend socialism.

A: In the 1920s, Communists viewed everything politically. Naturally, Ivor Montagu believed inexpensive table tennis could be played by the working classes and unify it.

Q: Can you prove that Montagu was a pro - Kremlin spy?

A: It’s well documented in the National Archives in Kew, London. He attracted MI5 and MI6 attention. The Kew and Manchester papers detail his unwavering sympathies from when he entered Moscow aged 21 in 1925 to his death in 1984. He was always faithful to the Kremlin, no matter how unfaithful it was to Communism. Six intercepted and decoded messages expose that he passed information about encrypted codes and British air defense systems.

Q: As for Beijing, you stress how ping pong has always meshed with politics…how so?

A: China saw that the Japanese used sports after WW 2 to redeem their image. Everything in New China was political, sports too. He Long headed the Sports Ministry – a revolutionary hero and a general. Table tennis let the Chinese edge into the international arena. They could win gold medals and acclaim. Beating western countries would show New China's success as a viable alternative. That was Premier Zhou Enlai’s vital message in the 1960s when he posited that Beijing was a third choice between the US or the USSR.

Q: During the tumultuous Cultural Revolution between 1965 - 1975, which players suffered purges? Why?

A: The Cultural Revolution didn’t spare anyone. The team suffered persecution according to the white is black - black is white lunacy. They were condemned as the guiltiest team because they were the most successful. The radicals shouted they cared only for trophies, not Mao. Also, the team's three founding members were from Hong Kong with ties to a foreign nation, not purely Chinese. Their tormentors accused them of spying. They spearheaded China’s incredible victories but were driven to their deaths.

Q: You claim that in 1970, a Japanese champion met Zhou in Beijing and advised that to end its isolation, China should attend the World Championships in Nagoya....really?

A: Zhou was maybe already thinking that. It was very Zhou-like to have plan A and B ready. US President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao's flirtation was underway in 1970. How exactly it would click was uncertain. For China, Nagoya was a powerful symbol. China lacked diplomatic relations with Japan and America. It would be Beijing's first real attempt to interact on the world stage since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. So its arrival caused a stir even before the Chinese reached out to the Americans. Allegedly, the Japanese world champion Ichiro Ogimura recommended that to Zhou. Ogimura knew that his victory in 1950s London improved how the British saw ex-enemy Japan. The only source is Ogimura's writings. He was a straightforward man, so it’s surely true.

Q: The head Chinese player Zhuang Zedong came armed with a needlepoint landscape intended for an American. So what?

A: Its remarkable forethought, proof that Zhuang and America's leading player Glenn Cowan’s interaction was far from ‘spontaneous’ as we all previously thought. Zhuang’s actions were planned. Cowan was the most distinctive athlete there, not because of ability, but because of his looks and attitude. One team mate said Cowan was "the opportunistic hippie." The Chinese studied him all week, after he’d initiated a warm-up session with a Chinese player. They knew he was friendly. The Chinese say that Cowan accidentally stumbled in to their bus and that led the Chinese to invite the Americans, but Cowan always maintained that he was waved on.

Q: Then the Chinese hosted the US players in April 1971 in the former's capital. Substantiate your claim that Zhou instructed the Chinese to lose.

A: For sure, the Chinese threw games. They’d been doing it for years. The Chinese were the world's best. The Americans were rated around 30th. The Chinese did not throw the overall match. They made it look even.

Q: Maybe your best insight is that Chinese fused the game with shrewd politico - psychology. Amplify that.

A: They picked a sport where they were vastly superior. The gracious host allowed its inferior opponents to look good whenever the former wished yet it could put them in their place.

Q: Why did Cowan fail to extend his fame?

A: He was the son of a Madison Avenue ad-man. He thought his great story -- an American hippie playing with the Communist Chinese -- meant fame and fortune. He hit the big US talk shows, the networks sniffed around, he signed book deals. But then media attention shifted. He wanted to be the face of a table tennis boom, but there wasn’t any.

Q: Cowan was mentally ill -- bipolar -- and the April anniversary annually obsessed him and led to his heart stopping that month in 2001. Some drugs arrest the heart...did Cowan commit suicide?

A: I don’t think so. He’d suffered from 30 years of heartbreak since his brief fame. His family can’t say if fleeting fame or mental illness came first. He combined smoking pot and dropping acid with being the first American athlete to enter Communist China. He had big hopes for table tennis in the US – a pipe dream. Cowan lacked other talents, lost his apartment and was homeless in LA – a tragic fall.

Q: Isn't it an over statement for you to write that the players succeeded where the diplomats failed?

A: My book shows how much was under Zhou's control, not merely Kissinger quickly taking advantage of this spontaneous meeting between Zhuang and Cowan. What Zhou controlled was the timing of contact, the personnel -- both ping pong and politicians – the method through table tennis and the location in Nagoya and next in Beijing. The ping pong players were 'benign pawns' in a vital narrative. They were unwitting, making them more persuasive. Catalyst Cowan opened a vast space for politicians to maneuver without domestic backlash. But Kissinger and Nixon, Zhou Enlai and Mao would take the bows because they ultimately achieved détente. Table tennis was one tool in Zhou's vast bag of tricks, but vitally one that charmed America.

Q: Did Mao or Zhou or other Chinese leaders play ping pong?

A: Many did. Photos show Mao playing wrapped in winter gear in the 1930s. Zhou played because his doctor ordered him to stretch his arm broken when horse riding. Table tennis and the PRC seemed made for one another from the beginning.