The 31st World Table Tennis Championships, held 220 miles from Tokyo in Nagoya, Japan, brought together 536 players and officials from 54 nations. One of the nations was Red China—for the first time in six years.
Even in the first few days of the tournament, before the field narrowed and the play intensified last week, China was on almost everyone's mind. Its long absence might have made sense had its players been less talented. Communist countries often prefer nonrepresentation to fielding a poor team. But the missing Peking paddlers, men and women, had been the world's best between 1959 and 1965, the year of their mysterious dropout. Yet so perfect and silent was their vanishing act in '65 that in the gloomy green crypts around the world that table tennis players call clubs it became a generally accepted theory that China's three-time world singles champion, Chuang Tsetung, and his teammate Li Fu-jung had been sacrificed by Mao's Red Guards in one of the purgatorial riots of the cultural revolution.
Then, last November, Chuang, Li and their usual entourage turned up in Stockholm for the Scandinavian Open. Though they didn't win, their leaders said they might still go to Nagoya if certain conditions and provisions could be guaranteed.
Immediately table tennis bigwigs began flying to Peking. First to go was Mr. Goto, president of both the Japan Table Tennis Association and the Table Tennis Federation of Asia. It would mean a tassel on his kimono if he could lure the Chinese stars to Nagoya. But China's "conditions" got Goto into trouble. It was prominently reported in the Asian press that Goto had agreed to Red China's demand that, in return for its participation at Nagoya, he would oust the Nationalist Chinese from the Asian Federation. Ripping mad at this alleged single-handed samurai swipe, a group of delegates from Asian countries asked Goto to affirm or deny the reports. Goto would do neither, and when pressed he resigned.
The Nationalist China issue is an old table tennis blister that suppurates every two years when the world championships are held. This year it was additionally chafed by the reports of Goto's Peking agreement. As a member of the 22-nation TTFA, Nationalist China competes in tournaments sanctioned by that body, but cannot compete in the world championships because it is not a member of the International Table Tennis Federation.
Moreover, Taiwan cannot become a member of the ITTF—though it has been submitting applications to join since 1957—because, in the words of ITTF President Roy Evans, "the applications have not been received in the proper form." If he is asked in what way the applications are not proper, he replies with equal steadfastness, "I refuse to elaborate."
Evans, too, had flown to Peking and obviously he knew more about the problems of the two Chinas than he was saying A sturdy 61-year-old Welshman with a ruddy face, he was easily spotted on the perimeter of the playing floor at Nagoya.
"Yes, I was in Peking," he said, "and a fine visit it was. Things seem to be better there now, a general thawing out. I was told that by the British ambassador himself at dinner one night. But when I tried to locate some of my old table tennis friends—Chen Hsien, for example, former head of their association—there was no trail and no clue. I was told by my chaperons that they had died. I didn't press for explanations.
"But I saw Chou En-lai again. He sent some of his aides to take me to dinner—Peking duck, delicious—and they said that Chou wanted very much to see me but that his schedule was heavy. Later that night, just as I was ready for bed, Chou sent for me. We met in the People's Auditorium, one of those magnificent buildings erected in a few months by thousands and thousands of workers.
"At first, there was the usual sipping of green tea as we sat in a semicircle; a dozen men, with Chou and me in the middle and an interpreter just behind us. Chou looked fit, not much older than when I'd met him in '59, though I believe he's over 70. He was wearing one of those blue-gray serge Mao jackets of the best quality, the kind that their highest people always wear. Chou said he wanted his people back in international sport, which to them is table tennis, of course, because they don't compete in the Olympics. He said they had a contribution to make and added the usual things about promoting friendships. Naturally I didn't ask him why his players hadn't been heard from in six years, but the evidence now seems clear. During the cultural revolution the extreme left-wing faction insisted that China withdraw from the world to examine itself, that the Chinese people reduce all life to its barest essentials lest they lose sight of their goals. Their sports program was to become a broad-based people's program, not one that would glorify the individual champion.
"In our talk we discussed sports in general. Chou said that in those sports where one's opponent was a distance or a height or a clock, China was as strong as anyone. He implied that China's swimmers and weight lifters had broken present world records. But Chou was worried about his table tennis players who had not played competitively in six years.
"Then Chou asked me a question. He wanted to know if in the Western countries our young people had the same dedication to sports that youngsters in China have. I suggested that perhaps our youths had too many distractions. In turn, Chou expressed concern for them. He said he felt the permissive society was bad for young people. And then, quite ingratiatingly, he began pulling my leg. He said that in his opinion there was a real possibility that table tennis might not actually be the fastest sport in the world; that perhaps badminton, or even volleyball, might be faster. Well, I mean, what could I say...."
Evans is justifiably proud of the job the ITTF has done and the cohesive body it is. With its 94 member nations, the ITTF is one of the largest sports federations in the world—large enough to include as bona fide members two Germanys, two Koreas and two Vietnams. But two Chinas? Unlikely. At the big ITTF meeting at Nagoya, Evans, as chairman, persistently dismissed the cries: "Point of order! Point of order, Mr. Chairman!" that rose from many of the delegates when the Red Chinese representative, Mr. Wang, began a vituperative assault on the supporters of Nationalist China. The Wang harangue concluded with a demand that the teams of Khmer (Cambodia) and the Republic of Vietnam be immediately ousted from the world championships. Demand denied.
A few days later, in a statement widely publicized in Japan, Red China announced that it was withdrawing from the International Lawn Tennis Federation and also the International Archery Federation. Because of the timing of the statement and because it used words almost identical to Mr. Wang's—and because in any case the question is academic inasmuch as Communist China does not compete internationally in tennis or archery—one could only assume that the statement was a warning to the ITTF that if it accepted Nationalist China, Red China would withdraw.
As for the play at Nagoya, the Chinese seemed far from their former invincible selves in the early rounds. Their men's team—Chuang Tse-tung, Li Ching-kuang, a brawny new left-hander, and a new defensive chopper, Liang Ko-liang—seemed especially shaky. Chuang is probably 10 pounds heavier than he was in '65 (he's about 5'8" and 150 pounds) and at 30 he is old for table tennis. Though his forehand drive is still the most perfectly executed stroke in the game—he blasts the ball at amazing speed to any spot on the table—his reflexes have slowed and he cannot always get into perfect attacking position. So at times he played erratically, losing four or five points in a row, and he lost several matches to various opponents.
Five out of nine singles matches, two out of three games to a match, constitute what is called a "tie" between two countries. The Chinese players almost lost their tie to Hungary, and would have lost it if the Hungarians had had a slightly stronger third man. As it was, China edged them out 5-4.
As the Chinese team was advancing to the Swaythling Cup—the table tennis equivalent of the Davis Cup—the Japanese, defending world champions, were also running into problems in the other half of the draw. In their tie against Yugoslavia, they were extended to the absolute limit—the third game of the ninth match. But once again a weak third man prevented Europeans from beating Asians.
The Europeans these days are spending so much time perfecting their "loop drive"—a murderously heavy topspin attacking shot that can be executed only with a flat-surface sponge bat—that they seem to have forgotten the first rule of attacking play: "Hit the ball hard." The problem of reading spin, however heavy it may be, can be solved, but there is no real answer to power. After the thrilling close-call ties of Japan-Yugoslavia and China-Hungary, the China-Japan finals for the cup were anticlimactic. It was a rout, with China winning 5-2. But in the process the Chinese showed why they had brought along Li Ching-kuang. He won his first two matches and then finished off Japan in the seventh match. Up against Japan's Shigeo Itoh, the reigning world singles champ, Li blazed forehands and backhands across the net with such appalling consistency and power that the humiliating scores were 21-3, 21-6.
Sure, Japan had some consolation in the fact that its women's team beat China 3-1 for the Corbillon Cup, but as the tournament entered its second stage, the individual events, oldtimers were saying that the big prize, the men's singles title, would probably go to the muscular Li Ching-kuang, or, as some were calling him, "Lee King-pong."