BEIJING (Reuters) - Zhuang Zedong is highly unlikely to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, but there was a time when he would have been the natural choice.
In a tumultuous 66 years, Zhuang has been a three-times world table tennis champion and a national hero bigger than basketball player Yao Ming and athlete Liu Xiang are today.
China’s sports minister in his early thirties, he was detained for four years after Mao Zedong’s death and exiled in Shanxi for another five years.
But it was the apparently simple gesture of handing a silk scarf to an American at the table tennis world championships in Japan 36 years ago that secured his place in history.
This was the first act of the ping-pong diplomacy that paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 and, as far as Zhuang is concerned, led to an environment in which China could host an Olympic Games.
“There was a chain reaction,” he told Reuters.
“The Cold War ended and east-west relations started to recover after the ping-pong diplomacy. It actually set the foundation for China’s reform and opening.”
Too short for basketball and too slight for soccer, Zhuang was built for table tennis and by the early 1960s had established himself as the best player in China.
His unique playing style, “the dual offensive”, won him the world singles title in 1961, 1963 and 1965 — a feat matched for the first time by compatriot Wang Liqin last month.
At a time when China was in the grip of a famine that killed an estimated 30 million people, international success in table tennis was seized upon by a government desperate for good news.
“Our success and spirit encouraged the marching Chinese people in their hardest era,” said Zhuang. “We were national heroes.
“Every decade has its own icon and I belong to the 1960s. (Yao and Liu) are the icons of their own age.
“I’m proud to say I was bigger than them although I made less money, but one ping-pong diplomacy is worth a thousand world titles.”
Zhuang is convinced he would have won a fourth title in 1967 had the Cultural Revolution not put an end to top level sport a year earlier.
“I’d won three consecutive national titles by 1966 and never lost a single set to a foreigner,” he said.
That ping-pong diplomacy ever got started at all was remarkable given the constraints of the period.
The players were allowed to return to training in 1969 and two years later went to Japan for the world championships with strict instructions against contact with Americans.
“Never shake hands,” Zhuang recalled. “Never take photos. Never give presents when meeting Americans. We must never have any contact or interaction. It was an unbending rule.”
Unknown to most Chinese or Americans, Mao, fearful of Soviet threat to the north, and Nixon, looking for a foreign policy coup, had already put out feelers in an attempt to end 22 years of mutual hostility.
But when an American player Glenn Cowan missed his own transport and was offered a lift on China’s bus, the reaction of the Chinese was predictable.
“Nobody dared pay any attention to him,” Zhuang said. “Anybody having contact with foreigners would be branded a betrayer, a traitor, a spy.
“When I started towards him, my team mates said ‘What are you doing? Don’t go! Don’t make any trouble! Don’t talk to him!’”
Undeterred and inspired, he says, by China’s tradition of hospitality to guests, Zhuang pulled a brocade scarf from his bag and spoke to Cowan through a translator.
“‘Although the U.S. government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese,’ I said. ‘I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people’.”
Pictures of the meeting were all over the Japanese papers the next day and the news quickly got back to Mao in Beijing.
“Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping-pong, he knows good diplomacy too,” Mao is reported to have said.
Later that night, the Chinese leader ordered the foreign ministry to invite the American team to China, the first delegation from the United States to visit since the Communists took power in 1949.
As Mao put it, the small ping-pong ball moved the large ball of the earth. Nixon visited China and relations between the two countries were normalized in 1979.
Zhuang’s reward was to be made a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and sports minister, appointments which drew him into the struggle for Mao’s succession.
“I was too young at that time,” he said. “I wanted some help from the ‘older comrades’ and the Gang of Four said to me ‘We can help you. You can turn to us more’.
“I thought there was only one centre of power — who knew there were two? When the Gang of Four was cracked, I was put under investigation.”
Detention was tough for a man who in his sixties is still a ball of energy.
“I was not allowed to play table tennis,” he said. “I was shut away and I was always reading, reading and learning by myself in those years. I armed myself through learning.”
His first marriage to pianist Bao Huiqiao fell victim to his political downfall and when he returned to Beijing from exile in 1985 he fell in love with his present Japanese wife.
“For a man like me, who had been investigated, wanting to marry a foreign national was considered treacherous,” he said. “People reckoned that you are preparing to run away from China.”
Zhuang convinced then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that he had no intention of bolting and the marriage was approved.
Still under a political cloud, Zhuang now works from a large but spartanly furnished office at a primary school in Beijing, one of three locations where he coaches “the game I love”.
As for his own place in welcoming the Olympics to China, Zhuang believes that in inspiring his fellow Chinese during the early 1960s and helping end isolation, he has played his part.
“A man who has made these two contributions, it’s enough,” he said.
Additional reporting by Liu Zhen