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Broken Promise

Once the poster boy for Ping-Pong diplomacy, Glenn Cowan saw his dreams of glory fade away

A BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOGRAPH preserves the moment the world changed forever. On the left is Zhuang Zedong, China's most storied table tennis champion. On the right is Glenn Cowan, an up-and-coming American known for his long hair and gregarious personality. They are showing off the presents they exchanged at the 1971 international championships in Nagoya, Japan: Cowan is holding a tapestry of the Huangshan Mountains, Zhuang a T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign and the words LET IT BE. Their broad guns suggest more than a polite response to a foreigner's gift.

Just days after the image appeared in newspapers around the globe, the Chinese delegation unexpectedly invited the U.S. team to tour the mainland. In the midst of both the cold war and the Vietnam War, Cowan and 14 companions were whisked to Beijing, becoming the first Americans to venture behind the bamboo curtain since the Communist takeover in 1949. Their journey turned out to be the first public move in a rapprochement between the most powerful nation and the most populous.

"The ping heard round the world," Time magazine said. "Probably never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy."

Wearing purple bell-bottom corduroys and a floppy yellow hat, Cowan grabbed the spotlight during a weeklong series of exhibitions and photo ops. "Chou, 73, and 'Team Hippie' Hit It Off," read a front-page headline in The New York Times after the 19-year-old Santa Monica College student broke protocol and engaged Chinese premier Chou En-lai (now known as Zhou Enlai) in conversation. Virtually unknown before he went to Asia, Cowan returned to L.A. a full-blown celebrity. He was a guest on Carson, and he traded quips with Dinah Shore. There was talk of a TV variety show that could position him to be a spokesman for the nation's youth. U.S. table tennis officials, while privately aghast at his "Make Love, Not War" lifestyle, hoped that his popularity and his plan to start a national chain of Ping-Pong centers would boost the profile of their niche sport.

In the time it takes to slam the ball across the net, however, the opportunity passed. Fame seemed to unhinge Cowan—once he was treated like a rock star he came to believe he was a rock star—and he began to experience episodes of the mental illness that would torment him for the rest of his life. None of his outsize dreams would be realized, nor would table tennis escape America's musty basements. Shortly after the historic U.S. team visit, President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong met in Beijing, and in 1979 their countries established official relations. By then, Glenn Cowan the accidental diplomat had been forgotten.

COWAN GOT INTO TABLE TENNIS the way most American kids do. His father, Phil, a television executive, showed up with a table at the family home in the New York suburb of New Rochelle. Glenn was "obsessed," says his mother, Fran. "He and my husband would fly to tournaments on weekends and come home with trophies. I must have had over a hundred trophies." In 1966, father and son traveled to Southern California for a tournament, fell in love with Los Angeles, and persuaded Fran to move to Bel-Air.

Glenn attended University High, but he received his table tennis education at the Hollywood club-cum-hangout run by Milla Boczar, the patron saint of L.A.'s highly competitive Ping-Pong scene. The 15-year-old honed his strokes at tables stuck between the gigantic pillars that dominated Boczar's cozy second-floor space. He sometimes took on men who were twice his age, including Erwin Klein, the aloof, four-time U.S. singles champ, and Jack Howard, the IBM engineer and Harrison Ford look-alike who would captain the '71 team.


This feature was originally published in the August 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Combining nifty footwork with a deceptive, looping topspin, Cowan won the 1967 U.S. junior championships. The tithe southpaw got locked into a rivalry with John Tannehill, an introspective University of Cincinnati psychology student who preferred to let his game do the talking. The two seemed to meet in every final—it was Glenn and John, John and Glenn. "Glenn was just a natural," said Robert Lange, who competed against both. "Picture John McEnroe, hitting shots that no one else could imagine. That was Glenn. He played like he was always in the zone, whereas Tannehill did it with determination. He was more of a [Jimmy] Connors: a grinder, a grunter, a fighter."

After his father died in 1967, Cowan went from a clean-cut, sports-minded boy to a party guy who experimented with drugs and cruised women. "He was very good looking, with sparkling green eyes and a great smile," says Pam Ramsey, a former player from San Diego. "Everyone had a crush on him." Olga Soltesz, a high school student from Florida, recalls the car ride to the Los Angeles airport before the trip to Japan: "I was sitting on Glenn's lap because we were all crammed in together, and this song came on the radio, 'Born to Be Wild.' Every time I hear that song, I think of Glenn."

Cowan qualified for the Nagoya tournament with a strong showing in the 1970 U.S. Open Team Championships. He joined a U.S. team that had been drawn from a paltry pool of about 6,000 registered competitors, one that languished at the bottom of the international field.

Like many sports born in the 19th century, table tennis originated in England. The game soon spread to other countries, including China, where it probably arrived via YMCA missionaries. It came to America as a commercial product; in 1901 the Parker brothers, George and Charles, trademarked the term "Ping-Pong." Europeans and Americans dominated competition at a time when table tennis was considered a cerebral exercise, with protracted rallies that flowed like a good argument. Then, at the 1952 world championships, an obscure Japanese player named Hiroji Satoh introduced a paddle swaddled in thick foam. In the way sound transformed the movies, sponge replaced the sport's traditional thwack, thwack rhythm with rapid-fire thrust and parry. Noiselessly spraying shots with unpredictable spin, Satoh dumbfounded his opponents and took the singles crown. Journalist Murray Kempton described the new style as "all attack ... played with strokes like pistons and spins so unreadable that its masters can make any victim look bad without ever being quite able to show the watcher why they themselves are so good."

Some Europeans adapted, but in America competitive table tennis faded from view. Asia began to produce the top players, not least because athletes could make a living as coaches. The People's Republic joined in the boom. The International Table Tennis Federation was one of the few organizations of any sort that offered memberships to both China and Taiwan. It didn't hurt that the Great Helmsman was an avid player. "Regard a Ping-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy," Mao said. "Hit it with your socialist bat and you have won the point for the fatherland." With about 6 million registered players, the Chinese slammed capitalists and socialists alike en route to several international titles.

During the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard unleashed a wave of terror, the country isolated itself. China didn't participate in the 1967 and 1969 tournaments; rumors spread that Zhuang Zedong, the three-time world singles champ, was imprisoned or dead. By the early 1970s, however, Mao and Zhou were grasping for ways to reintegrate China into the international community. One strategy, according to Mao's biographers Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, was to go to Nagoya—with Zhuang on the roster.

At the 31st World Table Tennis Championships at the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, China took four of seven events. The Americans were little more than practice fodder. The United States couldn't get past first-round opponents Hong Kong and South Korea.


This feature was originally published in the August 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Despite the disappointing showing, Cowan made a point of hitting with top-ranked foreigners to improve his game. One day he stayed late and missed the bus to the hotel. The Chinese team offered him a ride. Cowan later told historian Tim Boggan that he tried to communicate with the Chinese through a translator: "We, too, have known oppression in our country, and we are fighting against it. But just wait. Soon we will be in control because the people on top are getting more and more out of touch." Zhuang smiled and offered him a silk-screened tapestry. Afterward, Cowan scoured Nagoya and purchased two LET IT BE T-shirts. At the next opportunity, he presented one to Zhuang as cameras flashed.

While the two men were bonding, their governments were working through back channels to establish relations. Tensions remained over key issues, including Taiwan, a divided Korea, and American involvement in Vietnam, but communication via Pakistani and Romanian contacts had forged an opening. Days before the U.S. team left for Japan, President Nixon eased restrictions on travel to the People's Republic.

According to Chang and Halliday, the genesis of Ping-Pong Diplomacy was Mao's seeing the photo of Cowan and Zhuang and directing that the Americans be invited to China. (Four other teams had already agreed to visit.) In their memoirs, Nixon and former national security adviser Henry Kissinger expressed surprise that, as Nixon put it, the "China initiative would come to fruition in the form of a Ping-Pong team."

Other observers refuse to believe that China would employ such a seemingly random approach. "The Communists then, and now, rarely acted on impulse," says Associated Press reporter John Roderick, who accompanied the Americans to the mainland. "The Chinese chose to invite the American Ping-Pong team rather than make formal diplomatic approaches to Washington because [Beijing] would not lose face if it was rebuffed."

THE 15 AMERICANS WHO CROSSED Hong Kong's Luohu Bridge into China on April 10, 1971, included a housewife, a bank clerk, a metal-pattern maker, and a miniskirted tenth grader. Thrust into history, they were clueless about the dance being conducted between Washington and Beijing. "None of us knew what we were getting into until we reached the border and were surrounded by reporters," says Hall of Famer Connie Sweeris.

The tour featured several exhibition matches, sight-seeing at the Great Wall, and a meeting with Zhou Enlai. Cowan asked him what he thought of the "hippie movement in the United States." Replied the Chinese premier: "Youth wants to seek the truth, and out of this search various forms of change are bound to come forth. Thus this is a kind of transitional period.... When we were young, it was the same."

At an exhibition at Beijing's Workers' Gymnasium, the crowd of 18,000 dwarfed the size of an average American audience by about 17,500. The Chinese team had been instructed to lose certain matches. Wearing a red headband and the second LET IT BET-shirt, Cowan was the main attraction. He later said he felt like "a Martian or maybe a Zulu" on the streets of Beijing. "In the mornings we'd go walking, and thousands of people would follow him," says Tannehill. "The Chinese had never seen a person with long hair and hippie ways."

Cowan and his teammates returned home as heroes. "They did, with sponge racquets, what the Paris peace talks, striped pants and Homburg hats, and the State Department couldn't do in decades—unthaw one-quarter of the world," wrote Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times. "Not since Marco Polo or Admiral Perry had so few brought back so much from the Orient."

American table tennis seemed poised for a breakthrough. That winter a tourney in Redondo Beach offered a record $7,500 in prize money. Things never took off. A well-publicized visit by the Chinese in 1972 failed to ignite interest. Subsequent opportunities for exposure—inclusion as an Olympic sport in Seoul in 1988, Forrest Gump parlaying his Ping-Pong skills into a shrimp business—came too late.

Some insiders blamed the U.S. Table Tennis Association for not taking advantage of the hype and for ineffective marketing. Others note that unlike the chess craze triggered by Bobby Fischer's victory over Russia's Boris Spassky in 1972, Ping-Pong Diplomacy did everything except highlight Ping-Pong. "People have no idea about the work that goes into being a good player, how long it takes, the strategies, the spins," says Howard, the '71 team captain. "They start to get into it, but it's too hard and so they leave."

Several players have spoken darkly about being used as political pawns, of being what writer Jerome Charyn described as "ciphers in a power struggle that swirled far above their heads" in his quirky table tennis memoir Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins. In 1972, both the U.S. and the Chinese squads visited the White House. As the Americans stood in a roped-off area, President Nixon strolled past them to have his photograph taken with the Chinese. "They had," wrote Kempton, "been relegated to the relation the Washington Generals bear to the Harlem Globetrotters."


This feature was originally published in the August 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine


AS SOON AS HE LANDED IN L.A., Cowan sought to capitalize on his fame. With guidance from Bob Gusikoff, a longtime friend who became his promoter-manager, he published an instructional book, promoted a Double Happiness line of Chinese-made paddles, and gave exhibitions at county fairs. With a straight face he told the L.A. Times, "I could mediate between Zhou Enlai and Nixon quite easily."

Then, nothing. Cowan made the pilot for the variety show, but the deal fizzled, as did the Ping-Pong chain idea. He soon found that, far from being the savior of the sport, he couldn't earn a living as a player or coach. Instead, he enrolled at UCLA and became a junior high school teacher. The adjustment to normality proved daunting. "After China, everything seemed to be useless," Tannehill says. "How could you do better than world peace, you know?"

Cowan's mother began to notice signs of mental illness. Friends say drug use exacerbated his problems. Danny Goodstein, a buddy from Boczar's club, remembers seeing Cowan at a Rolling Stones concert. "Glenn believed he had this connection with Mick Jagger," Goodstein says. "He'd say to me 'MGM.' That stood for 'Mao, Glenn, and Mick.'" During the 1972 visit by the Chinese, Cowan became so anxious that he had to be taken home before making it to the White House. He was diagnosed, variously, as being bipolar and schizophrenic. When he didn't take his medication, he behaved erratically and had to be institutionalized; when he did, he gained weight. Eventually he had to undergo bypass surgery.

Cowan was married for a brief time, but mostly he lived alone in a small apartment in Culver City. After he stopped teaching, he sold shoes. When he was in his mid-thirties, he started to train again, hoping to make a comeback at a local tournament. His entry check bounced.

Former junior player Bob Bisno hadn't spoken with Cowan for three decades when he received a call. "Glenn said that he was in a hospital and that he was going to escape," says Bisno, a Century City-based developer. "He wanted to know if I would pick him up."

Several months later, the 52-year-old Cowan suffered a heart attack and never recovered. He died on April 6, 2004-33 years to the day that he and his teammates were invited to China. He was laid to rest with his father in the veterans' cemetery in Westwood. None of the newspapers or magazines that had published front-page stories about him mentioned his passing.

THE TAPESTRY THAT ZHUANG Zedong gave Glenn Cowan hangs in the dining room of the Westwood apartment of Cowan's mother. Fran says it reminds her of "a good time" in her son's life, when "there was hope for the future." She acknowledges that she didn't understand its significance until several months ago, when she and members of the 1971 U.S. team flew to the People's Republic to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Fran befriended Zhuang, who had survived imprisonment and banishment during the 1970s and '80s and was now a coach. He escorted her throughout the New China, one in which Yao Ming outshines Mao and Wal-Mart factories have supplanted agrarian communes.

On the last night of the visit, the Americans and the Chinese gathered at a restaurant for a farewell banquet. When the karaoke got cranking, Tannehill, Boggan, and the others paid tribute to their old friend by serenading his mother with a rousing rendition of "Let It Be."


This feature was originally published in the August 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine