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Ping Pong diplomacy: The Secret history behind the game that changed the world

A history of table tennis by Nicholas Griffin

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Little white ball, big Red game

  • Mar 9, 2014
If you have a chance to go to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH, be sure to stop by the museum there, and take special notice of the display of the rail car mounted Minuteman nuclear missile.  When I saw this a decade or so ago I was jarred to realize that within my adult lifetime this was a real proposal for shuttling armed nuclear warheads around the country's railroad racks and sidings to keep the equivalent Soviet missile launchers guessing where to strike.

You may, as I did, have a similar reaction to reading this book and its bizarre stranger than fiction retelling of the role that table tennis (Ping Pong is a trademarked name for a brand of table tennis equipment) played in bringing the US and China together after decades of political and diplomatic silence.  Surely Ping Pong never changed the world!  Ah, but it did, and Griffin does an excellent job of letting the story tell itself, writing in short staccato sentences and chapters that mimic the rapid fire exchange of points in a table tennis match.

The story starts in the most unlikely of places, a younger son of British nobility whose older siblings will inherit the land and titles, so is seeking his own place in the world.  Ivor Montagu found his niche in table tennis--and Communism, in the early decades of the 20th Century when it was still possible, no matter how misguided, to sincerely support and believe in the Communist cause and Russia's guidance of the movement.  But unlike most of his generation he never wavered from his views despite the horrors of Communism in practice under Stalin, and in fact became and remained a Soviet spy, using his leadership of the table tennis governing bodies which he founded and lead for decades as his hiding-in-plain-sight disguise.

Griffin tells Montagu's story as the foundation but this isn't just his biography.  The history broadens and deepens as Ping Pong is introduce to Asia and becomes a favorite of Red China's revolutionaries and then a weapon of state diplomacy, all of which lead to the historic meeting of American and Chinese players across the table and across political borders never before breached.

Thanks to Griffin's research and writing we can now see these events in their true place in history.  What at the time seemed coincidental and unscripted was in fact very much the result of political motives, plans, and actions undertaken by young players of a seemingly insignificant game on the highest stakes stage of world history.  It was Ivor Montagu's vision for his game and his political worldview realized in its full potential. It was a tiny white ball that changed the world.

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March 16, 2014
Fascinating historical events!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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