"How could you do better than world peace?"
This week's Sports Illustrated has a compelling, should be a movie within two years article about Glenn Cowan, a California hippie who, in the early seventies, managed to play a major role in altering world history -- all because of his ping-pong paddle. Seems that by ambling onto the wrong bus, dude made friends with some Chinese ping-pong players (who were forbidden from speaking to Americans) and set the little white ball in motion toward the Ping Pong Diplomacy that ultimately (albeit moderately) opened China up to the Western world.
... on orders from Chairman Mao they weren't to pose for photos, exchange flags or initiate conversation with Americans. Indeed, Mao had once said, "Regard a Ping-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland." As Zhuang says today, "At that time we were still in the Cultural Revolution. Any exchange with Westerners would be [attacked] with vicious labels, such as 'treason' or 'spy.' So when this American guy got on the bus, nobody dared talk to him."
Yet in the awkward space of those moments, Zhuang [Zedong, the three-time world champion] felt himself torn. What of the charge to the team to put "friendship first"? What of the core teaching of Confucianism, in which he'd been raised, which holds nothing more precious than harmony? For all Zhuang knew, this American had boarded the bus to offer a greeting, and as the team's most accomplished player, the Chinese star felt a particular responsibility to reply in graceful kind. "I was thinking, China has been well-known as a country of hospitality for more than 5,000 years," he says. "If everyone ignores that American athlete, it would be ironic. Then I looked at him and thought, He's not involved in issuing policy. He's just an athlete, an ordinary person."
Zhuang stood and started up the aisle toward Cowan. His teammates urged him to stop and one tugged at his shirt to restrain him, but through the interpreter he began a conversation. "Even now," says Zhuang, "I can't forget the naive smile on his face."
Uplifting, right? After all, who'd'a thunk these two would've altered history? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Because this one doesn't have a happy ending.
About a decade ago Cowan briefly married, but the relationship ended after two months. By then, having discovered paddle tennis, he was hanging out on the courts at Venice Beach, hustling games. He lost his apartment, then spent several years living out of his car and on the streets, Lechtick says. "He'd be at the courts at Venice Beach, begging money. He'd be barefoot and borrow someone's racket and still win. Even when he was homeless, he always had a backpack with that Ping-Pong book he wrote."
Around 2000 Cowan underwent a bypass operation following a heart attack. He died of another heart attack on April 6, 2004, the eve of the 33rd anniversary of China's invitation to the U.S. team. He was 52. "He was like a comet," says Lange, Cowan's former doubles partner. "Flashed through the sky and then gone."
Or as Tannehill puts it, "After China, everything seemed to be useless." Then he poses a rhetorical question that could serve as Cowan's epitaph. "How could you do better than world peace?"
Suppose that sometimes those names lost to history are the ones that had the greatest impact.