72-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency
Day 72, June 21 - Chinese Dominance, Absence & Ping Pong Diplomacy
“Table Tennis is the sport that changed the world!”
The sole title that eluded the Japanese in 1959 was Men’s Singles, which was won by China’s Rong Guotuan. It was China’s first gold medal in the WTTC’s. And it was a harbinger of things to come.
Over the next three WTTC’s, China went on to capture every title except Mixed Doubles, as follows:
Men’s Team: 1961, 1963, 1965
Women’s Team: 1965
Men’s Singles: 1961, 1963, 1965 by 3x champion Zhuang Zedong
Women’s Singles: 1961 by Qiu Zhonghui
Men’s Doubles: 1963 and 1965
Women’s Doubles: 1965
When China hosted the WTTC’s in 1961, Premier Zhou Enlai held a special farewell reception for the Japanese. A year later, Premier Zhou asked 1954 & 1956 world champion Ichiro Ogimura to come to China and coach. Intrigued, Ogimura accepted, after listening to Zhou Enlai’s request:
“Ever since the Opium Wars, we have suffered many humiliating experiences. We reasoned that sport is a way to wipe away the sense of inferiority created by these humiliations. It was the sporting performances of people like you, Mr. Ogimura, that enabled the Japanese people to regain its confidence after it reached rock-bottom with Japan’s defeat in the war. Japanese and Chinese people have the same physique, so we thought that if we Chinese trained hard in the sport in which you Japanese had been so successful, we too might enjoy success. That’s why I want you, Mr. Ogimura, to use your experience and ability to convey the wonder of table tennis to the people of this country.” (Ogi, undated, p. 204)
There the new world champion astonished Ogimura by informing him that they had been studying his film for many years. Zhuang Zedong explained how they had learned the importance of footwork from watching Japanese Table Tennis. He said, “Watching you and Mr. Tanaka practice made us realize that you do not swing a table tennis racket with your arms; you hit the ball with your feet.” (Ogi, p. 205)
Several years later, Ogimura had retired from playing and had the occasion to visit China again with the Japanese team, which he was managing. It was August of 1966. He witnessed strange things. The two countries played a demonstration match in Shanghai. A lady interrupted play whenever the Japanese had a run of points. She chanted sayings from Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, known as The Little Red Book. (Ogi, pp. 215-16)
China’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Its table tennis team was disbanded. China did not participate in either the 1967 or 1969 WTTC’s. And, during that time, three of the CTTA’s heroes perished: 1959 World Champion Rong Guotuan, Coach Fu Qifang, and Jiang Yongning. (Ogi, p. 227)
As the years past, Ogimura deeply contemplated the situation. He concluded, “China’s champions – Zhuang Zedong, Li Furong, Xu Yinsheng – were my rivals but also my successors. I felt it would be such a waste for the table tennis that these people played to be consigned to oblivion. There had to be some way to give Chinese table tennis a path back out of the darkness.” (Ogi, p. 228)
Knowing that the 1971 WTTC’s would be held in Japan, Ogimura came up with an idea. He repeatedly sent the same telegram to Premier Zhou Enlai without ever receiving a response. It read, “Given the present situation, would you not agree that your country’s best opportunity lies in opening the door to the international community through the sport of table tennis? If China were to take part in the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, you would be able to resume exchange not only with socialist countries but also with other countries around the world, including the United States and Europe.” (Ogi, pp. 228-29)
No longer a part of the JTTA, Ogimura sought an alternate path of communication and found it through participating in the China Import and Export Fair in Canton in April of 1970. At every opportunity, Ogimura made his case for the Chinese to participate in the 1971 WTTC’s. On that trip he was not able to make contact with Premier Zhou Enlai. (Ogi, p. 229)
He arranged to visit China again later that year for the October 1 (National Day) celebrations. There he managed to appeal directly to Premier Zhou Enlai. (Ogi, pp. 230 – 231)
On his third visit, Ogimura was stunned to see 15,000 spectators at an exhibition match where his successors and rivals also appeared. The Chinese were going to participate in the 1971 WTTC’s! (Ogi, pp. 236 – 237)
Ogimura, it turns out, was not alone in his thinking. JTTA President Koji Goto was also courting the Chinese government, with the same idea in mind. He deserves so much credit for all he endured to put all the necessary logistics together. The book, The Origin of Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Forgotten Architect of Sino-U.S. Rapprochement, details his role.
Edgar Snow, the American journalist who had in 1937 first profiled the Communist leaders in Red Star over China long before the establishment of the People Republic of China in 1949, had also visited Beijing for their National Day parade.
Even more stunning, U.S. President Richard Nixon was secretly also seeking rapprochement with China. Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou were consulting with each other about the unexpected turn of events.
Even ITTF President Roy Evans became involved. He was invited to China on his way to Nagoya. Upon meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai, he recommended that the government invite some teams to China afterwards, perhaps even the American team.
The 1971 WTTC’s In Nagoya
China recruited its veteran players and showed up, as promised, at the 1971 WTTC’s. The press was there in full force as this was China’s re-entry to the world. Their field day came when American team member, hippie Glenn Cowan, was surprisingly seen boarding the Chinese bus from the practice hall to the tournament venue.
Photographers and journalists were waiting on hand for the bus to arrive. They wanted a scoop!
On the short bus ride, Glenn Cowan had reached out to the Chinese in friendship through a short speech. Zhuang Zedong, remembering the well-publicized photos of Mao Zedong and Edgar Snow, decided to take a calculated risk. He arose from his seat and presented Cowan with a beautiful silk screen, which the two heartily displayed for the journalists and photographers upon their arrival at the competition hall.
Cowan, who did not automatically carry any lavish gifts in his tournament bag, wanted to reciprocate. In a street market, he found the perfect gift: a t-shirt with the peace sign and popular Beatles’ song title: “Let It Be.” From then on, he looked for the opportunity to present it to Zhuang Zedong in such a way that the media would also capture the moment. Having done so, the air of excitement grew stronger.
Back in China, Chairman Mao had been monitoring events in Nagoya. He had initially decided that an invitation to the Americans might be premature, but he changed his mind on the eve of the tournament’s last day. A little drama ensued at his home, where his assistant had previously been told to disregard any pronouncements he made after taking his nightly sleep aids. But the Chairman prevailed and the invitation was en route.
The surprised Englishman, now American, Rufford Harrison, was the recipient of the invitation. He thought they must have erred. Certainly they didn’t mean to invite the American team!
But all was handled smoothly. The American Embassy in Japan took a marker to their passports, crossing out the ban on travel to the People’s Republic of China.
Fifteen members of the U.S. delegation (along with other invited teams) went to China. Premier Zhou Enlai even held a special reception for them. The news was reported globally. Headlines throughout the world hailed what came to be known as “Ping Pong Diplomacy.”
This is the brief story about why people say: “Table tennis is the sport that changed the world!”