It was one of the most significant developments of the post-war era: China finally abandoning its close relationship with the Soviet Union to begin detente with the USA. Astonishingly, the man who helped make it happen was a British aristocrat, Ivor Montagu, a Soviet spy who knew Stalin and dined with Trotsky. Even more remarkably, the means to this rapprochement was table tennis, a sport loved by both Chairman Mao and Montagu. For years, Montagu had lived a dual life, working to spread communism and also table tennis around the world. Surprisingly, the two strands of his career would come together in an event of global significance.
Nicholas Griffin weaves a compelling story to reveal the background to the famous occasion in 1971, when the USA's Glenn Cowan, a 19-year-old hippie, befriended China's world champion Zhuang Zedong, who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Within days, the Americans would be playing the Chinese in front of 18,000 fans in Beijing, with the whole world watching. It was the beginning of a thaw in Sino-US relations that forced the Soviets into a crippling arms race that acted as a catalyst to pressuring them into errors that would draw the Cold War to an end. Sometimes sport truly can have the biggest consequences.
Nicholas Griffin is a journalist and author of four novels and three works of nonfiction. His writing has appeared in TheTimes (London), the Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. His book Ping-Pong Diplomacy was shortlisted for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. He lives in Miami with his wife and two children.
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