Now, 50 years ago to the day, on Saturday 10thApril, we mark an occasion that not only went beyond the boundaries of table tennis, the boundaries of sport, it went beyond all boundaries.
On Saturday 10th April 1971, the United Statesteam and accompanying journalists arrived in Beijing; it was headline news, the first American delegation to visit the city since 1949.
Returning to the World Championships after a six year break following the era of the Cultural Revolution; on Tuesday 6th April at the 1971 World Championships in Nagoya the United States delegation received an invitation from the Chinese Table Tennis, the overriding theme: "Friendship First, Competition Second".
The arrival of the group rather overshadowed the fact that teams from Canada, England and Nigeria also crossed the border and played matches in Beijing. Vast crowds attended the matches.
At the time the United States had placed an embargo on goods from China. For over 20 years when there had been no diplomatic nor economic relations, both countries saw good reason to co-operate. There was tension between China and the Soviet Union, border incidents. The United States wanted a way to promote peace with North Vietnam and prevent the spread of communism.
It was reported that Roy Evans, at the time thePresident of the International Table Tennis Federation, visited China prior to the 1971 World Championships to encourage a greater participation in international events. Also, Leah Neuberger of the United States, winner of the mixed doubles title at the 1956 World Championships had received an invitation to visit China, the visa including the whole American team; seemingly the invitation was not pursued.
However, the incident which triggered the 1971 visit was a chance meeting.
Glenn Cowan, a member of the United States team had been practising in the hall for 15 minutes with China’s Liang Geliang prior to the start of the 1971 World Championships. The authorities wanted to close the premises. Glenn Cowan rushed to catch the shuttle bus and inadvertently boarded the bus carrying the Chinese team.
They treated him with great suspicion but Zhuang Zedong, three times world champion (1961, 1963, 1965) shook his hand and presented Cowan with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains, aprized product made in Hangzhou.
Glenn Cowan wanted to return the favour but all he had was his comb!
In the political climate of 1971, an American and Chinese sportsman in public was unheard of, headline news; when the bus reached its destination there was a media frenzy.
A hippie, Glen Cowan was determined to give Zhuang Zedong a present. The following day he presented his new-found friend with T-shirtcontaining a red, white and blue peace emblem flag with the words "Let It Be," lyrics from a song by the Beatles.
The United States team remained in China until Saturday 17th April 1971 playing friendly matches whilst visiting the Great Wall and Summer Palace.
The event paved the way for Richard Nixon, the United States President to visit China; he was present for one week from Monday 21st to Monday 28th February 1972.
Later in 1972, two months after Richard Nixon's visit, from Wednesday 12th to Sunday 30th April, Zhuang Zedong led a Chinese delegation to the United States. They visited Richard Nixon at the White House.
In Tuesday 6th April 2004 Glenn Cowan underwent coronary bypass surgery; during the surgery he suffered a coma and died of a heart attack.Diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2008, Zhuang Zedong died on Sunday 10th February 2013 atYou'an Hospital in Beijing.