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