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Opening Volley

Ping-Pong Diplomacy made the Beijing Games possible—but without two unlikely heroes, the great table tennis summit might never have occurred

THE AMERICANcharged through his life until its pitiable end, courting the approval ofposterity—and he wasn't Richard Nixon. His Chinese counterpart had a knack forthe philosophical aphorism and always seemed to find himself in the maelstromof events—and he wasn't Mao Zedong. ¬∂ During a brief and fateful window oftime, the two alighted long enough to find each other. Both stood at the centerof the U.S. table tennis team's visit to China in 1971, a diplomatic démarchethat ended 22 years of self-imposed isolation from the West for the People'sRepublic and set in motion a chain of events that will culminate in theforthcoming Beijing Olympics. But the two men who catalyzed that trip weren'tHenry Kissinger or Zhou Enlai either. ¬∂ This is a story, rather, to which theGreat Man Theory doesn't apply. Instead circumstances elevated two ordinary menfrom the basement rec room of history. Before Nixon could go to China and touchoff the change that has resulted from Ping-Pong Diplomacy, Glenn Cowan firsthad to get on a bus—and Zhuang Zedong had to be on the bus to greet him.

ON APRIL 4, 1971,at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, Cowan emerged from apractice venue. A member of the U.S. team, he had just rallied with England'sTrevor Taylor and, hoping to catch a ride to the main stadium, flagged down ashuttle bus bearing the tournament logo. Climbing aboard, he found it filledwith the Chinese team, which, as a condition of its participation, had beenpromised exclusive lodging and transportation.

From Cowan'sshoulder-length hair and floppy hat, the passengers knew they had an exoticinterloper in their midst even before spotting the usa on the back of hiswarmup jacket. Cowan, 19, leaned against the closed door of the bus for lack ofa seat and, facing the mute stares of his fellow passengers, broke the silence."I know my hat and hairstyle and clothes look funny to you," he said inEnglish. "But in the U.S. lots of people look like this."

Zhuang, a30-year-old, three-time world singles champion, watched from the back,listening to an interpreter's translation as the American held forth to noresponse. After a half-dozen years' absence from international competition, theChinese had agreed to send their table tennis players to Japan in what theycalled the spirit of "friendship first, competition second." Yet onorders from Chairman Mao they weren't to pose for photos, exchange flags orinitiate conversation with Americans. Indeed, Mao had once said, "Regard aPing-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialistbat, 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 withWesterners 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 theawkward space of those moments, Zhuang felt himself torn. What of the charge tothe team to put "friendship first"? What of the core teaching ofConfucianism, in which he'd been raised, which holds nothing more precious thanharmony? For all Zhuang knew, this American had boarded the bus to offer agreeting, and as the team's most accomplished player, the Chinese star felt aparticular responsibility to reply in graceful kind. "I was thinking, Chinahas 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'sjust an athlete, an ordinary person."

Zhuang stood andstarted up the aisle toward Cowan. His teammates urged him to stop and onetugged at his shirt to restrain him, but through the interpreter he began aconversation. "Even now," says Zhuang, "I can't forget the naivesmile on his face."

Zhuang decided togive Cowan a gift. "At that time China was poor," he says. "We hadnothing much but very small things, such as traditional wooden fans, emblemswith Chairman Mao's portrait and silk handkerchiefs." He regarded them allas inadequate. "Since he is an American athlete, I thought I should givehim a bigger present." He pulled from a bag a brocaded tapestry woven inthe silk-producing city of Hangzhou.

Cowan patted hispockets and opened his own bag, looking in vain for something to offer inreturn. Then the interpreter asked Cowan if he knew who had greeted him."Yes, the world champion Zhuang Zedong," Cowan replied. "And I hopeyour team does well."

By now the bushad reached the venue, where photographers captured the two smiling athletesdisembarking, Cowan with the brocade and Zhuang at his side. The next dayseveral Japanese newspapers ran front-page pictures, and the AP and AgenceFrance Presse picked up the story. As a result, Zhuang was upbraided by thedeputy of the Chinese delegation. "Chairman Mao told us we shoulddifferentiate between American policymakers and common people," Zhuangprotested. "What was wrong with my action?"

Meanwhile, at anunderground mall, Cowan had found a T-shirt that fused an American flag with apeace symbol above the words LET IT BE. At the stadium Cowan embraced Zhuangand gave him the T-shirt. According to The Little Ball Moves the Big Ball:Behind Ping-Pong Diplomacy, by People's Daily journalist Qian Jiang, Cowan then"dragged Zhuang in front of a TV camera." Asked if he'd like to visitChina, Cowan replied that he would, touching off another day's worth of newsstories.

What happenednext remains murky. The Chinese claim that J. Rufford Harrison, the No. 2 tabletennis official in the U.S. delegation, came by their compound and, invokingthe budding friendship between Cowan and Zhuang, wondered if the U.S. mightvisit the People's Republic after the worlds, as teams from Canada, Colombia,England and Nigeria had already been invited to do. Harrison denies this; hesays that someone in the U.S. delegation might have broached the idea with theChinese, but then only half seriously because, as he says, "we didn't thinkit was possible."

In any case theChinese thought the Americans were fishing for an invitation and went into anuproar. Some pointed out the "improper" timing; the U.S. and China werebacking opposing sides in the Vietnam War, and in the past year the U.S. hadexpanded the conflict by invading Cambodia. Others, still accustomed to thereflexive denunciations of the Cultural Revolution, lashed out at Zhuang forbringing on the situation. But others defended him, agreeing that this was thelogical result of "friendship first." An official traveling with thedelegation decided to check in with Beijing.

At first,officials rejected the idea of an American visit. Premier Zhou Enlai, Mao'ssecond in command, agreed with their decision but forwarded the request to Mao.Zhuang, who has lectured on Ping-Pong Diplomacy for years, picks up the tale:"Mao indicated he agreed, but asked that the [U.S. request] be returned tothe foreign ministry, to be documented for future use. If that was the end ofthe story, there would be no Ping-Pong Diplomacy."

A day later,though, Mao took some briefing papers with him to bed. After taking his usualsleeping pills, he came upon press accounts of the encounters between Zhuangand Cowan. According to Wu Xujun, Mao's nurse, upon seeing photos of the twoexchanging gifts, he was moved to exclaim, "My Lord, Zhuang!" He toldWu that the American team should indeed be invited.

One hurdleremained: Mao had ordered Wu to disregard any directive he issued after he hadtaken sleeping pills. Seeing her hesitation, he insisted that his instructionsshould nonetheless be carried out. After Wu pressed him again to reassure herthat he had really changed his mind, Mao kept himself awake until Wu returnedwith word that she had telephoned the foreign ministry with his order toformally invite the U.S. team. "That was on April 7, the last day of thechampionships," says Zhuang. "Everything was just on time. "

Later thatmorning, Harrison was hailing a cab in front of the U.S. team's hotel. A taxistopped, and two Chinese men stepped out: Song Zhong, leader of the Chinesedelegation, and his interpreter. At an organizational meeting at the start ofthe tournament, Harrison had tried to introduce himself, only to watch Songturn his head in rebuff. Now Song was beckoning Harrison into the lobby, wherehe asked how the U.S. delegation might react to an invitation.

Two days later,at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, an officer used a black marker to strike out thetravel restrictions in the delegation's passports. Harrison and U.S. TableTennis Association president Graham Steenhoven asked William Cunningham, theChina-watcher in the embassy, whether they should expect to be humiliated orthreatened. "I told them that this represented an enormous breakthrough inU.S.-China relations," Cunningham recalls. "I said they wouldn't haveinvited you if they intended to humiliate you."

Mao told Wu hehad invited the American team in recognition of the inevitable: "Thefriendly Sino-American relationship is definitely the trend. Look, theencounter between Zhuang Zedong and Cowan is so natural. They bear no grudgeagainst each other. Even though there was some hesitation, this was caused byhistory."

COWAN AND Zhuanghad forged their friendship in a diplomatic environment much more favorablethan anyone without security clearance in Washington or Beijing could haveknown. Over the preceding months Zhou Enlai had received a visit from KojiGoto, president of the Japan Table Tennis Association, which would be hostingthe worlds. Goto appealed to Zhou to end China's absence from internationalcompetition and send a team to Nagoya. On March 15, acting on Zhou'srecommendation, Mao approved China's participation.

In the meantimethe geopolitical stars had aligned. In 1969 China had suffered hundreds ofcasualties in border clashes with the Soviet Union, and the Chinese, fearingthe massive buildup of Soviet troops along a 2,700-mile stretch to their north,saw the value of the U.S. as a counterweight. Beijing was also eager to jointhe U.N., expand its influence and push out its noncommunist rivals on Taiwan.Finally, Mao wanted to tamp down the excesses of the Cultural Revolution andedge his country into the community of nations.

Washington hadits own reasons to pursue a closer relationship. A strident anticommunistthroughout his career, President Nixon had begun to reassess the country behindthe Bamboo Curtain. "There is no place on this small planet for a billionof its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation," Nixon hadwritten in Foreign Affairs in 1967, a year before his election. In a speech inFebruary 1971 Nixon had actually referred to "the People's Republic ofChina," not Communist or Red China—a first for a U.S. president. Althoughthe Vietnam War raged and Beijing still ritually denounced the U.S. and itsallies as "U.S. Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs," the realpolitikfavored by Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, called fortriangulation among the three world powers. Most immediately, an opening withChina could pressure the Soviets in the stagnant Strategic Arms LimitationTalks. A month before the U.S. delegation was invited to China, the statedepartment quietly lifted its ban on travel to that country.

"There hadbeen about a year of back and forth," Kissinger says today. "China hadsent us a specific proposal to come to Beijing, and we were on course to answerfavorably. Then in the interim they invited the Ping-Pong team, and thatreinforced in our minds what the Chinese had already told us secretly.Privately, we were torn. On the one hand the invitation reinforced what wealready knew from their messages, yet on the other, we didn't want to getdragged into a domestic debate about China. We wanted to play it all very lowkey. As it turned out, it worked out well for us."

Kissingerunderstates the result. The U.S. team's tour—and the Chinese team's returnvisit a year later—would be triumphs of stagecraft in the service ofstatecraft, captivating the press and public as they advanced the interests ofboth nations. In his memoir White House Years, Kissinger refers to the Chineseknack for making "the meticulously planned appear spontaneous." And theinvitation to the U.S. team, he says, was carefully planned: "Only Maocould have ordered this. And only Zhou could have orchestrated it."

But if theaccounts to emerge from China over the past few decades are to be believed, twopeople thrown together by chance hastened the process. Asked last month if heknew of the American athlete who had inadvertently boarded the Chinese teambus, Kissinger said he did not.

PHIL AND FranCowan put a Ping-Pong table in a room of their home in New Rochelle, N.Y.,sometime in the late '50s. Their son Glenn, a lefthander, was a natural atbowling, swimming and baseball. At age eight he began to play table tennis, athome with friends and at a club in town. "Our table was at an angle becausethe floor was off-kilter," Fran Cowan says today. "We said, 'We'llraise the table.' Then we said, 'That's not good because Glenn will beoff-kilter.' So we put in a new floor. That was the beginning of it."

Glenn soon beganto ply the tournament circuit and bring home trophies. At nationals as a12-year-old he reached the semifinals playing one age group up. Out in LosAngeles for a tournament in 1964, Glenn told his dad, "Let's move outhere." The Cowans relocated two years later to Bel Air, where Phil, a TVexecutive, took a job doing Hollywood p.r.

With a loopingtopspin forehand and a delicate touch, Glenn beat his great rival, JohnTannehill of Ohio, in the under-17s at the 1967 U.S. Open in San Diego. TheCalifornia fans mobbed him afterward. "With the onrush of the accolades,they couldn't give him enough ears," USTTA official Tim Boggan would laterwrite of Cowan. Two years later Cowan won another U.S. Open, and by the time hequalified for the Nagoya worlds he already had a deal for a signature paddle."Glenn was obsessed with table tennis," says his mother. "He wasyoung, with nothing to worry about except to go and play what heloved."

But soon afterthe move to California, Cowan's father died of lung cancer at age 48. Glenn,15, struggled to adapt. "It was a really hard time," Fran Cowan says."He wanted long hair, so I said, 'I'm not gonna fight it.' When my husbandwas alive, he didn't have long hair. But there were things I could fight andothers I had to let go."

Glenn embracedthe hippie persona in all its hedonism. "I do escape in drugs," he oncetold Boggan, who was part of the U.S. entourage in China. "I choose tobecause they give me a world that fits my needs."

At the same time,Tannehill remembers, "he could go to the table and have perfect strokeswithout practicing very much at all. He had tremendous natural ability, morethan anybody I've ever played."

Cowan had broughtdrugs to Japan, but thought enough to flush the stash down a hotel toiletbefore the team left for Hong Kong. On the eve of the team's passage into thePeople's Republic, Cowan met a woman at a bar and went home with her. Historywill gratefully record that she set the alarm, and Cowan returned to his hotelroom by 5:30 a.m.

Several membersof the USTTA's executive committee had tried to block Cowan's inclusion on thetrip, out of concern for the image he would project. But a few hours later hejoined 14 others who walked across a railroad bridge and into history as thefirst noncommunist group of Americans to visit China since Mao and his Red Armyseized power in 1949. "The American team could not have been morerepresentative of the U.S. if the State Department had handpicked it,"longtime AP China correspondent John Roderick, who accompanied the team, toldSI before he passed away in March. "It was what foreigners often thought ofAmericans: friendly, racially diverse, individualistic, original in thought andaction."

From the momentthey arrived in the People's Republic, members of the U.S. delegation ate foodand more food. They sat through a ballet staged by Mao's wife honoring anall-female Red Army regiment and visited the Great Wall. At one point theydiscovered the Chinese had no idea that, not two years earlier, man had walkedon the moon. Gazing out at peasants in fields from a train, Cowan said toBoggan, "I really believe life is simple. It's all the other people thatmake it complicated."

The Chinese threwmatches to keep things close—it was their way of honoring "friendshipfirst." When Cowan realized that his victory in front of 18,000 people atBeijing's Capital Stadium was coming gift-wrapped, it was an affront to hisidealism. "F--- you," he muttered at his opponent, according to Boggan."I'd have beat you anyway."

Just before theteam left Hong Kong, a newsman had asked Cowan if he wasn't afraid of beingbrainwashed. In fact, Cowan pursued exactly what he wanted during the eight-daytrip. He tried to line up deals to promote Chinese table tennis equipment inthe U.S., and he plotted to get a spot on the cover of LIFE. "There was acombination of shrewdness and innocence, like a hippie opportunist," Bogganrecalls.

At one gatheringan interpreter blanched when Cowan asked if Mao were dead or alive, and thecrowd laughed when he hiked his foot up on a table to tie his shoe. "TheChinese had never seen a person with long hair and hippie ways," saysTannehill. "Thousands of people would surround him in the streets. Theyloved him but were also a little terrified of him, because China was verystraitlaced then. They saw him as an extraterrestrial almost."

The abiding fearof USTTA president Steenhoven was that some gaffe would cause the Chinese todecline the offer of a return visit to the U.S., which Steenhoven was countingon to grow the sport. Jack Howard, Cowan's roommate, was charged withforestalling any international incidents. "Steenhoven said we don't needany clenched fists or stuff like that," recalls Boggan.

There were a fewuncomfortable moments at the team's audience with Zhou in the Great Hall of thePeople when Cowan asked the Chinese premier for his opinion of the "hippiemovement" in the U.S. For the record Zhou took Cowan seriously: "Youngpeople ought to try different things. But they should try to find something incommon with the great majority—remember that." And finally: "I wish youprogress." The front-page headline in The New York Times, using thespelling of Zhou then prevalent, read CHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT ITOFF.

Ten days afterthe tour, in a message delivered by the Pakistanis, Zhou told Nixon that"the Chinese government reaffirms its willingness to receive publicly in[Beijing] ... the President of the U.S. himself for a direct meeting anddiscussion." The President and his national security adviser toasted whatKissinger called "the most important communication that has come to anAmerican President since the end of World War II."

And just whenhistory might take itself too seriously, there was Cowan, telling the pressback in Hong Kong, "What I am is my message. I loved China. I loved theChinese. Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child oftwo in its arms?"

STARDOM SEEMED toawait Cowan upon his return home, and he wore his fame ostentatiously andawkwardly, like that floppy hat. He landed a guest spot on Dinah Shore's talkshow. Someone approached him to cohost a pilot for a variety show. He wrote TheBook of Table Tennis, or at least posed for the instructional photos. And hesigned with an import-export firm to promote a Chinese-made paddle calledDouble Happiness. The U.S. was an international table tennis also-ran, butCowan alone could make up in style much of what he and his teammates lacked insubstance. "Glenn was a rock star," remembers Robert Lange, a formerdoubles partner. "He was the biggest thing [U.S.] table tennis had everseen."

"He thoughthe was going to really make it big," says Connie Sweeris, one of Cowan'steammates in the U.S. delegation. But the TV show never panned out. And theimported paddles couldn't be secured in mass-market quantities, so the role forCowan—to make promotional appearances—never came off.

Shortly after hisreturn to the U.S., Cowan was taken to see a doctor because "he was actinga little erratic," says his mother, who's now 93 and an executive assistantat the Improv, the comedy club in Los Angeles. The diagnosis: Glenn wasbipolar. "He felt people were spying on him," Fran says. "He wentinto the hospital, and they gave him medication to keep him on an even keel. Ifhe went off it and got high, that would throw him off. Pot was his thing: Hetook the drugs and didn't take his medication."

When the Chineseteam visited the U.S. in the spring of 1972, Cowan didn't take part in thetour. His manager and friend, former U.S. Open champion Bobby Gusikoff, had toescort him back to California from the tour's starting point in Detroit."Glenn freaked out," says one former U.S. table tennis official. Cowanfell into a cycle: He would go off his meds, get hospitalized, then be releasedafter 72 hours. "It went on for years," his mother recalls. "It wasexhausting for the family. There is nothing in the world you can do aboutit."

Cowan fell hardfor fellow California-based player Angelita Rosal, with whom he played mixeddoubles in the early 1970s. He claimed to be Mick Jagger's half brother, thenserenaded her with the Rolling Stones' Angie, telling Rosal that Jagger hadwritten it for her. He would make schizophrenic references to "MGM,"which stood for "Mao Glenn Mick." "He was obsessed with Mao andMick Jagger," recalls Danny Goodstein, who befriended Cowan in the fall of'72. "He had somehow made that connection and put himself with them.

"I rememberone time he was dropped off at my door," adds Goodstein. "He was out ofit, talking nonsense. I drove him to [a mental hospital] in the Valley. Hekicked a coffee table, and they took him in. Every spring it seemed like hefreaked out. My idea is that the team went to China in the spring and he hadthe fleeting fame, and after that went away, it became a triggering event. Itwas almost a running joke—springtime, time for Glenn to flip out."

Cowan eventuallypicked up a teaching credential at UCLA after graduating from Santa MonicaCollege. He taught school for a stretch and sold shoes. "He always saw itas a real comedown, this worldwide celebrity out there selling shoes," saysSandy Lechtick, who hired Cowan at his headhunting firm in the early 1990s, andremembers him as intrepid in all he did. "He was most fearless when it cameto girls and competition. When he was here as a recruiter he had that samefearlessness. That's why he did well."

Throughout, hehaunted the Hollywood Table Tennis Club. "He was still playing almost untilthe end," says Fran Cowan, who displays Zhuang's gift to her son in thedining room of her Westwood home. "He loved it. He had an addictive nature.He was addicted to Ping-Pong, he was addicted to drugs."

About a decadeago Cowan briefly married, but the relationship ended after two months. Bythen, having discovered paddle tennis, he was hanging out on the courts atVenice Beach, hustling games. He lost his apartment, then spent several yearsliving out of his car and on the streets, Lechtick says. "He'd be at thecourts at Venice Beach, begging money. He'd be barefoot and borrow someone'sracket and still win. Even when he was homeless, he always had a backpack withthat Ping-Pong book he wrote."

Around 2000 Cowanunderwent a bypass operation following a heart attack. He died of another heartattack on April 6, 2004, the eve of the 33rd anniversary of China's invitationto the U.S. team. He was 52. "He was like a comet," says Lange, Cowan'sformer doubles partner. "Flashed through the sky and then gone."

Or as Tannehillputs it, "After China, everything seemed to be useless." Then he posesa rhetorical question that could serve as Cowan's epitaph. "How could youdo better than world peace?"

BY THE early'60s, China's table tennis players lorded over their sport the way Kenyanmarathoners dominate theirs today. Zhuang Zedong was best of them all, winningworld singles titles in 1961, '63 and '65. But in 1966 Mao launched theCultural Revolution. In a massive and bloodthirsty turning of the tables,students and peasants took vengeance on teachers and intellectuals. As Chinawithdrew into a madness of its own making, millions were killed, jailed orexiled to the countryside, to be reeducated in the ways of Mao's Little RedBook.

When Chinaskipped the worlds in 1967 and '69, members of the clannish table tenniscommunity tried to find out if the champion with the easy smile and a forehanddrive that former U.S. titlist Dick Miles called "the most perfectlyexecuted stroke in the game" had survived. "Dead or Alive?"wondered a caption beneath a photo of Zhuang that ran alongside an SI reportfrom the 1969 worlds. In fact Zhuang and other members of the team had beenjailed, charged with allying themselves with Mao's rival, Liu Shaochi—ironic,given that Zhuang had once said, "I owe my entire table tennis success tothe study of Mao Zedong's philosophy." At that, he was lucky: Three otherChinese table tennis greats committed suicide during the late 1960s, includingRong Guotuan, who in '59 had become the first Chinese to win a world title inany sport.

Zhuang's role inPing-Pong Diplomacy catapulted him back into favor. When the Chinese teamreturned the U.S. team's visit in 1972, Zhuang, by then a deputy in theNational People's Congress, served as delegation head. He performed card tricksduring airplane flights—making "the meticulously planned appearspontaneous," to use Kissinger's phrase. He shared wisdom infused with asmuch Zen as Mao. ("Though Ping-Pong is a highly competitive sport, there isno real victory or defeat. There is always both. Just as there is no lifewithout death, there is no death without life. The whole world is unified likethis.") Upon returning to Beijing, Zhuang settled into a job as Minister ofPhysical Culture and Sports.

Yet the headyyears of the early 1970s turned out to be only a pause before the chaosreturned. Attacked in 1976 for being too close to Mao's widow and thediscredited Gang of Four, Zhuang lost his ministerial position and had to findwork as a street sweeper. Then he was denounced publicly for, among otherthings, "wearing a Swiss-made watch" and tossed once again into jail.In '77 he reportedly used a belt to try to hang himself in his cell. The suddenway China's political winds would shift—the back-and-forth rally of what andwho is in and out of favor—only underscores what a risk Zhuang took on that busin Japan.

The reward onthat risk has been bountiful. Within a year the People's Republic would jointhe U.N., and the SALT talks would open a path to U.S.-Soviet détente.Meanwhile, sports continued to play a central role in opening up China. Beijingreceived IOC recognition in 1979 and sent a full delegation to the 1984Olympics, taking some of the sting out of the Soviet Union's boycott of the LosAngeles Games. When Deng Xiaoping took over, he introduced market reforms witha declaration that "it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as longas it catches mice." The IOC awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in '01."The legacy is that we haven't bombed each other," says Tannehill."Without the make-love-not-war idea that Glenn [espoused], we might not behere."

UPON LEARNING ofCowan's death, Zhuang wanted to know how Americans had reacted. In fact no newsoutlet beyond the table tennis world carried an obituary. When Zhuang dies, hepointed out, everyone in China will know. The irony of it: In theindividualistic society that mints and worships celebrities, Cowan isforgotten; in collectivist China—where to be one in a million is to live amonga thousand more just like you—Zhuang is fully rehabilitated and heralded as aman who forever changed his country's course. Ever the diplomat, Zhuang in 2006hosted several American players and officials, as well as Fran Cowan, on a35th-anniversary return visit to China. At dinner the last evening the groupsang a karaoke version of Let It Be in Glenn's honor.

"I only knowhow to play Ping-Pong, how to hit the ball from this side of the table to theother," Zhuang said last September before an audience at Southern Cal. Thenhe got just right the sentiment at the heart of Let It Be: "Sometimes theball drops. Sometimes it goes out-of-bounds."

It's the kind ofexistential musing that might as easily have come from Glenn Cowan, whodiscovered the hard way that if the world leaves you off-kilter, you can't justput in a new floor. But with someone else, a person to supply a Pong to yourPing, that world might be brought into something closer to equilibrium.

"I know my hairstyle and clothes look funny toyou," Cowan told the Chinese, "but in the U.S. lots of people LOOK LIKETHIS."

The headline on the front page of The New York Timesread, CHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT OFF.

The U.S. team's tour—and China's return visit—weretriumphs of STAGECRAFT IN THE SERVICE OF STATECRAFT.

"Even now, I can't forget the NAIVE SMILE ON HISFACE," Zhuang says of his first meeting with Cowan on the bus.

Tannehill poses a question that could serve as Cowan'sepitaph: "How could you do better THAN WORLD PEACE?"




Get the latest Olympic news and insight in every sportas Nicole Nazzaro counts down to the Summer Games with regular posts.



Photograph by Frank Fischbeck/FormAsia Books

FOREIGN EXCHANGE A gift from Zhuang to Cowan (inset) helped lead to a U.S.-China exhibition in Beijing and the end of 22 years of Chinese isolation from the West.



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CURIOUS CRAZE Cowan (opposite) and Zhuang (below left) spurred a paddle mania that captured even Mao (far left) and Kissinger.



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COVER STORY The U.S. team's groundbreaking eight-day visit dominated the news in April 1971.



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HANDS ACROSS THE WATER Nixon, long an anti-communist, was greeted by Mao; Zhou hailed Kissinger.



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SURVIVOR Zhuang twice ran afoul of the Party but now lectures on his historic role.