How Ivor Montagu transformed ping-pong into a potent instrument of international politics
Table tennis was a forgotten sport in America. The team that represented the U.S. at the World Table Tennis Championships in 1971 had to beg and borrow its way to Nagoya, as the U.S. Table Tennis Association was too poor to sponsor the players. The team itself was a motley bunch of amateurs. Among them was Glenn Cowan, a callow hippie kid who combined a passion for table tennis and drugs. During the tournament, Cowan stumbled onto a bus and found himself among the Chinese team. After the initial consternation at having a “foreign devil” in their midst, who they had been indoctrinated to shun, Zhuang Zedong, the reigning world champion, walked over to Cowan, shook his hand and handed him a Mao pin. Photographs of the two beaming men alighting from the bus made headlines across the world; and, within days, the American players were on their way to China — the first U.S. delegation to visit that country since the Communists came to power.
What followed is now well-known: a secret — even from the US State Department — visit to Beijing by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to prepare the ground, followed by the momentous tour of President Nixon which forced a realignment of global forces that permanently changed the world.
In his fascinating book, Nicholas Griffin builds the case that far from being a serendipitous encounter between the Chinese Ping-Pong team and a shaggy-haired hippie, nor a spontaneous gesture by Zhuang to reach out to the Americans, this meeting was the result of meticulous machination and exquisite diplomacy. While both Mao Zedong and Nixon dreamt of détente, albeit for very different purposes, they had to be wary of internal lobbies that would resist any outreach. Griffin sees the breakthrough as “the justification of Ivor Montagu’s belief in Ping-Pong as a form of diplomacy”.
Taking the game to China
At the time of the ground-breaking Nagoya championship, Ivor Montagu had relinquished the stewardship of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), which he had piloted for more than four decades. An uncompromising communist, he was committed to spreading his credo through the sport. Manoeuvring its path to China in the early ‘fifties, Montagu introduced Ping-Pong into Mao’s diplomatic arsenal. Griffin’s story recounts “how Montagu moulded the game, and how the Chinese came to embrace it and then shaped it into a subtle instrument of foreign policy.” Chairman Mao was fond of the axiom ‘Let foreign things serve China’. Griffin declares: “Little has served China as effectively as Montagu’s very British game of table tennis.”
Born into privilege, the young Ivor would gambol in the grounds of 10 Downing Street while his father hobnobbed with the Prime Minister. Prodigiously intelligent, even as a young teenager Montagu took to socialism — influenced by Shaw’s ‘Socialism for Millionaires’ — and constructed the rest of his life around it. Bespectacled and unathletic, the one sport he could play was table tennis, which he saw as a game for the working class. He organised his first tournament while in Cambridge and went on to draft a code of rules for the game, promote national and European championships, and to found the ITTF, of which he became the president when he was not yet 22. The world men’s table tennis trophy — the Swaythling Cup, which was picked from his grandfather’s silver collection — bears Montagu’s family name to this day.
Montagu used his exceptional organising talents to found the Film Society — mainly to serve as a conduit to import Soviet films — that brought him into contact with film-makers of a similar socialist bent, among them Alfred Hitchcock with whom he produced several memorable films. He visited the Soviet Union under various pretexts and became a propagandist, and then a spy, for the regime — activities he persisted with through World War II, but for which he was never formally charged although the facts were widely known. Perhaps it was Montagu’s background and seeming eccentricity that protected him; but all his life he was an unabashed defender of Stalin and Mao, and an exponent of international communism. His ultimate mission was to take table tennis to China and to enable the Communists to use it as a diplomatic tool.
The larger part of Ping-Pong Diplomacy describes how the game made inroads first into Japan and then China where it became a national obsession. Vignettes of a charming cast of players and others take the reader through the evolution of table tennis: tales of grit and tenacity, manipulation and deception. Mao referred to the game as his “spiritual nuclear weapon”. When China won the world championship in 1961 it was regarded as a manifestation — like Japan’s some years before — of the country’s re-emergence; equally, it was a cover up of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Ping-Pong hit its nadir when Chinese players were accused of reactionary “trophyism” and forced to recant, hounded into exile and even driven to suicide, during the Cultural Revolution. But Mao, who in the words of his admiring chronicler Edgar Snow, “never gambled — except with four aces”, and the pragmatic Zhou Enlai, deftly brought the game around to deliver the prize of détente with the West.
In his deeply-researched and fast-paced narrative, reading in parts almost like fiction, Griffin brings to life the redoubtable Ivor Montagu and others who transformed the innocuous game with the little bouncy white ball into a potent instrument of international politics.