"Ping pong diplomacy player dies".
Headlines are meant to grab your attention, and that one—on the homepage of the BBC World Service—certainly did yesterday. We often hear of the story behind the story, and given the ease of access to almost unlimited sources of information via the magic of the internet, we can now follow the trail ourselves.
Always keen to highlight the power of sport in contributing towards greater understanding across the yawning chasm of suspicion and mistrust, I figured the story of the passing of 73-year-old former three-time world table tennis champion Zhuang Zedong and his role in the thawing of relations between China and the United States at the height of the Cold War would have been something worth delving into.
To put it mildly, I got much more than I bargained for. Indeed, given the increasing influence of the Eastern superpower at a time when much of the Western world remains in the throes of a protracted financial and economic crisis, I wonder how many of those persons of influence in the United States who know the story would be regretting that one of their loose cannon compatriots had boarded the wrong bus at the 1971 Table Tennis World Championships in the Japanese city of Nagoya.
For it was the decision of 19-year-old Glenn Cowan to flag down the Chinese team's transportation after a training session on April 4, 1971 that triggered a series of totally unexpected events, resulting in the American squad travelling to China for an exhibition series immediately after competing in Nagoya, the first visit of a US delegation of any kind to China for 22 years. By the very next year, Richard Nixon became the first-ever United States president to visit the communist nation and seven years on, in 1979, the two countries normalised diplomatic relations.
Cowan, a hippie, flower-power-type character who was always prepared to do things his own way, chose to stay on the bus when others, noticing the combination of stunned looks and icy stares from the Chinese contingent (they were warned by their government about the consequences of any sort of fraternising with the "enemy") would have quickly apologised and jumped off. And that was the cue for Zhuang, after a few minutes' deliberation, to approach the weirdly-dressed (long hair, floppy hat outrageously printed shirt and bell-bottom jeans by all accounts) Yankee, start a conversation via an interpreter and present the unexpected visitor with a gift of a silk weaving depicting the Huangshan mountains of Eastern China.
Zhuang's gesture was made, apparently, despite the efforts of some of his teammates to hold him back from approaching Cowan, so fearful were they of retribution for breaking the rules of their participation in the tournament. Again, it's only through following links from the main BBC story that it is now possible to appreciate and understand their fear, for sport in general and table tennis in particular had fallen victim of Chairman Mao's "Cultural Revolution", which attempted to purge China of all negative alien influences, even though the country's table tennis teams had dominated at world events until the early 1960s.
That chance encounter between the two table tennis players became the story of the championships, sparking a flurry of diplomatic activity that resulted in the Americans taking on the Chinese just a week later in front of an audience estimated at over 18,000 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Frank Gannon's account of the events on the Nixon Foundation website suggests that the Chinese players were instructed to lose a couple matches as a courtesy to their guests, even though the home team still won both the men's and women's rubbers.
It was in reading that lengthy report that I came across an image of three members of the American team with their Chinese guides posing on the Great Wall: female players Olga Soltesz and Judy Bochenski and male player George Braithwaite. I know, your reaction is probably just as mine's was. George Braithwaite? That doesn't sound like your typical African-American sporting personality. It isn't, for he is a native of Guyana, excelled as a sprinter for his homeland at the 1958 Central American and Caribbean Games before migrating to New York, taking up a job with the United Nations and, through that organisation's table tennis club, taking up the sport and excelling to the extent that he was inducted into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999.
Based on information provided by the New York Daily News website, Braithwaite, who earned the title "The Chief" for his domination of US table tennis for almost three decades at different levels, was active in the sport as recently as two years ago when, at the age of 75, he introduced and participated in a tournament on New York's Roosevelt Island, his home for the past 37 years.
Braithwaite is probably one of the last survivors of the historic "ping pong diplomacy" experience now that Zhuang has died, coincidentally on the first day of the Chinese New Year. Cowan died at the age of 51 in 2004 in the immediate aftermath of heart bypass surgery. It is reported that Zhuang, on a goodwill visit to the United States in 2007, met Cowan's mother and told her that never meeting the flamboyant American again after those historic 1971 moments was the "greatest regret of my life".
If you have the time, and the inclination, sport gives us so many inspirational stories.