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Top of the mind: Turning the Tables

The amazing story of table tennis, leading up to a tour that changed world history.

Updated: February 22, 2014 10:56:58 pm

The amazing story of table tennis, leading up to a tour that changed  world history.

So how pivotal was the year 1971? It, 1971, is the title of a book by Srinath Raghavan, a global history of the events leading to the creation of Bangladesh. In different ways, the events of the year also inform two other recent books: Eagles Over Bangladesh, a riveting account of the Indian Air Force’s role by PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra, and Gary J Bass’s The Blood Telegram, a narrative supported by recently declassified American documents that interrogates the role of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in overlooking the excesses of the Pakistani army in what was then East Pakistan.

The Americans then had an eye on an opening to China, the possibility of which suddenly hit the headlines in 1971 from the most unlikely of venues. The Table Tennis World Championship was in progress in Nagoya. The Chinese squad, made of former world champions but devastated by how the Cultural Revolution had humiliated all of them and even killed some of their mates, was returning to the sport after years.

Given the charges of “trophyism” and the experience of struggle sessions, with the most successful among them having had to sign a “big character poster”, the Chinese sportspersons had been reluctant to make the journey. But the order to go to Nagoya came directly from Mao Zedong. Their apprehensions over how their conduct could be invested with political meaning back home must have substantially multiplied when Mao’s message to them carried the warning that they should “prepare for death”. Relations between the two countries were charged, and the Chinese players moved with maximum security. A hotline ensured that the team would touch base with the powers that be back in Beijing a few times a day.

Imagine the surprise then, when one fine Monday, the 5th of April, a long-haired, hippy-ish American table tennis player hopped on to a shuttle bus carrying Chinese players from the practice hall to the stadium. Glenn Cowan had lost his first-round match, but was up to the task of defusing the bewilderment of his co-passengers at having in their midst this representative of a country China had no direct ties with. The Chinese athletes had been told specifically that while they could greet an American athlete politely in Nagoya, they were not to shake hands. Cowan, regardless, launched into a somewhat incoherent take, translated by an interpreter on board, on revolution.

Thereupon, Zhuang Zedong, China’s best player (and later in the 1970s fated to have his life and legacy complicated by his association with the Gang of Four), reached out to shake Cowan’s hand and presented him with a Mao pin and “a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan mountains”.

This encounter is narrated more than halfway through Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy: Ivor Montagu and the Astonishing Story Behind the Game That Changed the World. In a book of meticulous archival research and reportage, one that reads so much like a thriller that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is all fact, Griffin speculates whether the encounter had been contrived, and if it had been, who was party to it. In any case, as it happened, Cowan went shopping for a gift for Zhuang, and the rest is history, the tour of China by American players and the subsequent visit by Nixon, and the realignment of China in the global order.

Griffin contextualises the role of table tennis by focussing on the story of the sport until then, specifically of the role played by Ivor Montagu, son of a prominent, seriously well-connected London millionaire, who devoted his life to communism and ping-pong. Montagu edited films for Hitchcock, his unconventional marriage had the queen commiserate with his mother, he spied for the Soviets and provided them crucial information, he shared one year the Lenin Peace Prize with Khrushchev, he kept MI5 and MI6 interested in his activities but evaded confirmation of his most audacious exploits. And he loved table tennis, to which end he founded the International Table Tennis Federation, presiding over it for decades, changing the profile of the game as a sport in its own right and its political context.

In fact, as archival photographs attest, Montagu played a key role in bringing Mao’s China out of isolation, with the country’s participation in table tennis tournaments being perhaps the first framework where Beijing would dictate the relative places of the mainland and Taiwan. Mao’s inner circle, his fellow Long Marchers, had always been keen on table tennis, and it was table tennis that first enabled the People’s Republic to assert its ambition to lead the global pack in most human endeavours. The Chinese leader whose profile turns out to be, in Griffin’s book, most entwined with the rise of table tennis is Zhou Enlai, and to read of the game’s history is to get an intimate profile of Chinese leadership in the early decades.

And as for that chance, purportedly or actually, encounter on a bus that Monday morning in 1971, Griffin notes that it is as Zhuang who’d later say, “The Cold War ended with me.” n

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