Broken Promise

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

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