Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the Worldby Nicholas Griffin
THE SPRING OF 1971 heralded the greatest/b>/i>/i>/i>
Combining the insight of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World and the intrigue of Ben Affleck’s Argo, Ping Pong Diplomacy traces the story of how an aristocratic British spy used the game of table tennis to propel a Communist strategy that changed the shape of the world.
THE SPRING OF 1971 heralded the greatest geopolitical realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved toward a détente—achieved not by politicians but by Ping-Pong players. The Western press delighted in the absurdity of the moment and branded it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” But for the Chinese, Ping-Pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Nicholas Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to Communism thanks to its founder, Ivor Montagu, son of a wealthy English baron and spy for the Soviet Union.
Ping-Pong Diplomacy traces a crucial intersection of sports and society. Griffin tells the strange and tragic story of how the game was manipulated at the highest levels; how the Chinese government helped cover up the death of 36 million peasants by holding the World Table Tennis Championships during the Great Famine; how championship players were driven to their deaths during the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, how the survivors were reconvened in 1971 and ordered to reach out to their American counterparts. Through a cast of eccentric characters, from spies to hippies and Ping-Pong-obsessed generals to atom-bomb survivors, Griffin explores how a neglected sport was used to help realign the balance of worldwide power.
Griffin, a journalist, novelist, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, merges sport and diplomacy in a surprising story of how, for a moment in 1971, ping pong became a key player in world affairs. He analyzes the role the game played in Chinese politics while also profiling Ivor Montagu, a Jewish-British aristocrat who, driven by his love of ping pong and more private career as a communist spy, championed the growth of the International Table Tennis Federation. The invitation the American ping pong team received from China in 1971 was an unprecedented surprise, as was the impact of the match on world affairs. Griffin makes a strong case that the success of the American team’s China trip played perfectly into President Richard Nixon’s own historic China trip and the detente that altered world politics. Throughout, Griffin balances geopolitical context with sympathetic depictions of the world-class ping pong players who competed. Among them was Zhuang Zedong, the Chinese world champion who was disgraced during the dangerous days of the Cultural Revolution, and American star Glenn Cowan, who died homeless in 2004. Griffin has found an intriguing story with which to illuminate several important political events of the later 20th century and told it well. (Jan.)
A quirky, thoroughly enjoyable trek through the implausible beginnings of international table tennis and the colorful characters-cum-diplomats behind it. Griffin (Dizzy City, 2007, etc.) has the dexterity and cleverness to take on the story of British aristocrat Ivor Montagu, son of an English baron who was schooled at Cambridge, where he took up Ping-Pong at the end of World War I. An imperial British entertainment on the wane at the time, "teetering between sport and punch line," Ping-Pong would get its boost when Montagu renamed it table tennis (he discovered that Ping-Pong was trademarked by a toy manufacturer) and established its rules and regulations, organizing the Table Tennis Association and promoting championships, first across Europe, then behind the Iron Curtain and into Asia. He wrote: "I saw in Table Tennis a sport particularly suited to the lower paid," he wrote. "I plunged into the game as a crusade." Indeed, Montagu became a devoted communist; he also worked in film, importing the work of Soviet filmmakers and helping Alfred Hitchcock "weave outlandish plots into ordinary settings." Shadowed by MI5, Montagu traveled seamlessly from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War to the world tennis championship in Prague. After the war, he lobbied to include the Soviets in international competition, as well as Japan and communist China, where the sport was highly popular and political. Griffin delineates the significant championship matches held in Tokyo in 1956 and in China in 1961, at the height of Mao Zedong's catastrophic famine, which the world did not yet fathom. The same Chinese players disgraced during the Cultural Revolution were quickly rehabilitated in 1971 in order to act as convenient instruments of détente for the two frosty antagonists, Mao and Nixon. Griffin bites off a huge story but manages to maintain lively interest in the array of personalities involved.
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Meet the Author
Nicholas Griffin is a journalist and author of four novels one work of non-fiction. His writing has appeared in The Times (UK), The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, and other publications on topics as disparate as sports and politics, piracy, filmmaking in the Middle East, and the natural sciences. Griffin has written for film and is a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
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The best book to start off 2014! My new years resolution was to read more. This was my first book of the year and absolutely loved it. I’m not quite sure where to begin. This is a story about geopolitics, espionage and table tennis. It wanders from England to Japan, Russia to China and is bound together by the biography of a British aristocrat who produced Hitchcock’s films who happened to be a spy for Stalin. It leads up to the events of 1971 when China and America heal their rift after 22 years of silence. There are hippies, atom bomb survivors, ping-pong playing generals and revolutionaries dotting the pages. Got that? And no, even though the writer has written a lot of fiction, this one’s all true. Definitely the most entertaining, yet serious book I’ve read in a while. What’s it really about? Oh, I’d say it’s really about world peace.
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