Earlier this month (March), Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, said that as a nation, we place far too much emphasis on sport. “It’s not going to pull us out of the recession, give us peace on Earth or save the planet,” said the prof, although as everyone knows, this is nonsense.
No single feature or aspect of our lives is capable of achieving this rather elusive triple whammy, but sport can contribute to humanity’s general well-being, as Ping-Pong Diplomacy shows.
Several compelling threads run through this outstanding work, not least the story of how table tennis led directly to a remarkably speedy melting of the icy relationship that had once engulfed China and the USA.
In 1971, Glenn Cowan, an American table-tennis star, was competing at the world championships in Japan when he was drawn to face former world champion Zhuang Zedong of China. It seems incredible nowadays, but when the pair shook hands, it became big news and photographs of their handshake were distributed around the world.
Within weeks, arrangements had been made for the American team to play a series of exhibition matches across China, all of which attracted huge crowds, but they also changed the West’s perception of China.
Suddenly, diplomatic channels opened, frosty relationships thawed and in February 1972, Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit China where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong, himself an enthusiastic table tennis player. With no attempt at understatement, Nixon later called his visit, “the meeting that changed the world”. For once, Tricky Dicky was right.
Yet Ping-Pong Diplomacy spreads its ample wings beyond this hugely important meeting, introducing us to Ivor Montagu, a remarkable character who founded the International Table Tennis Federation, codified the game and later produced several Alfred Hitchcock movies. For good measure, he also led a double life as a Russian spy and it was his efforts in the late fifties, which persuaded Communist China to shed its insular stance and to use table tennis as a means of re-introducing itself to the world.
Montagu’s story alone justifies an airing on the silver screen, but this book contains much more, while the author’s meticulous research and engaging narrative make it a joy for anyone, not just table tennis fans, to read. I just hope the publishers have sent a copy to professor Cashmore.