The Lost Legend And Secret Legacy Of Table Tennis Master Rong Guotuan

Winning and losing at the same damn time.

Successful and shedding on the identical rattling time.
Illustration: Adam Villacin

That is an excerpt from Eric Nusbaum’s new weekly Substack e-newsletter Sports activities Tales, the place he’ll be writing about sports activities, historical past, and sports activities historical past. He hopes you’ll subscribe here, and share these tales with your folks, households, and table tennis follow companions. The model of this within the e-newsletter has some stuff about completely different table tennis grips in it, if that helps in any respect.

In 1959, a 21-year-old named Rong Guotuan entered the sphere on the World Desk Tennis Championship in Dortmund, Germany with low expectations. Rong was a tall, skinny child, with a parted haircut. His day job earlier than changing into a full-time ping-pong participant was because the librarian at a union corridor in Hong Kong. The outlines of his life are well-recorded, however the particulars are laborious to chase down—particularly for an individual (like me) who doesn’t communicate Chinese language. I do know that like his comrades on the Chinese language Nationwide Workforce, he performed with a conventional penhold grip. I do know he had a crisp, correct forehand and an acrobatic backhand block that glinted like a light-weight. I do know that earlier than Dortmund, Rong had by no means even performed in a world match. He was an unknown commodity. To many of the world, he stays unknown. However his life and demise would develop into a parable for the historic second he was born into.

The match in Dortmund was being held in an enormous warehouse-like corridor, stuffed with tables. The sounds of footsteps on the picket flooring, and ping-pong balls on the picket tables stuffed the air. When Rong leaped across the table, his bangs flipped up and down off his brow. As the sphere narrowed, the tables slowly had been faraway from the corridor till lastly, within the championship match, there was just one table left on the heart of the cavernous area. On one aspect of the table stood Rong Guotuan. This could not be the final time Rong Guotuan gave the impression to be on the heart of every part, and but very a lot alone and remoted.

The very presence of Rong Guotuan in Dortmund was one thing of a miracle. For one, he had been born and raised in Hong Kong, not on the mainland. Earlier than Rong was born, his mother and father had fled throughout the water from the coastal Chinese language metropolis of Zuhai, looking for stability and alternative. Over the course of Rong’s life, his household’s fortunes had sunk steadily. The onset of World Conflict II had value his father a very good job at a financial institution. As a substitute he grew to become a prepare dinner within the galley of a fishing boat.

Rong was a quiet, introspective individual. Gangly and barely awkward, he didn’t give off the looks of a severe competitor, not to mention an awesome athlete. However he was each. As a young person, he contracted tuberculosis solely to return again stronger than ever. He spent hours within the union corridor in Hong Kong, training his serve throughout an empty ping pong table. The game has advanced within the many years since Rong performed, however he was forward of his time; lots of these evolutions owe themselves to Rong’s personal inventiveness, particularly with the serve. He had a approach of hiding his spin on a backhand serve that drove opponents loopy.

Simply earlier than he turned 20 years outdated, Rong grew to become Hong Kong’s males’s singles champion. Quickly after that, he defeated the Japanese champion Ichiro Ogimura in an exhibition match. This, he hoped, can be the springboard to an awesome worldwide profession. However when the roster was introduced for Hong Kong’s nationwide crew for the upcoming Asian Championship in 1957, Rong’s title was left off the listing. The explanation for this isn’t precisely clear. However it could not be unreasonable to think about that his mother and father’ mainland roots had been part of it. The Chinese language Revolution had ended lower than a decade earlier; Hong Kong, beneath British colonial rule, remained an anti-Communist outpost.

All through the 1950s, a whole lot of hundreds of mainland Chinese language left for Hong Kong annually. Rong did the other. Chinese language officers scouted him and wooed him. Two different Hong Kong table tennis gamers had made the journey again to the mainland within the years prior: Fu Qifang and Jiang Yongning. Now, Rong would too.

Simply earlier than he left Hong Kong, Rong met up with one among his shut pals and enjoying companions. Steven Cheung. As Rong left to strive his fortunes in China, Cheung was on his option to make a life in Canada. Rong taught Cheung a serve he had developed, and gave him some phrases of encouragement. In response to a narrative Cheung wrote years later, the serve and the encouragement would stick with Cheung endlessly. (Cheung would go on to develop into a well known economist finding out beneath Milton Friedman on the College of Chicago. In his retirement, he can be charged with tax fraud in Seattle, and like Rong had earlier than him, Cheung would wind up in China.)

The China that Rong’s mother and father had fled twenty years earlier was a really completely different place from the China Rong got here to in 1957. Now it was the Individuals’s Republic, and Rong noticed solely the best of this new nation. He was feted by Chairman Mao’s trusted lieutenants. In response to Nicholas Griffin’s e book Ping-Pong Diplomacy, Rong was even put up in a house that had as soon as been occupied by former Chairman Chiang Kai-shek. When Rong had a tuberculosis relapse, he was despatched to recuperate for six months in a sanitarium.

When Rong Guotuan walked into the Guanghzou Institute of Bodily Schooling for the primary time in November of 1957, he declared that inside three years he would develop into a world champion. There was little cause for anyone to imagine him. China was not but the worldwide table tennis energy it’s immediately. And Rong, whereas clearly gifted, had but to exhibit that he might execute constantly at a excessive stage. He was only a quiet, gangly stranger. World champion in three years? The reality is, it could not even take him two.

In 1958, there was no World Desk Tennis Championships held. So 1959, can be Rong’s first try at fulfilling his declaration. The match in Dortmund was held within the early Spring in a cavernous corridor. Because the match progressed, and Rong ran by means of one opponent after one other, tables had been slowly faraway from the ground till lastly, Rong discovered himself within the remaining in opposition to the Hungarian Ferenc Sido. Within the remaining video of their match, Rong appears to be like virtually informal. He stands flatfooted. He wears lengthy pants and a polo shirt:

Rong got here again to China a hero. The hours he had spent alone serving throughout the ping-pong table within the break room at work had paid off. By defeating Sido, he grew to become the primary Chinese language world champion in any sport. As such, he grew to become a strolling piece of propaganda. He was greeted by Mao Zedong and have become a zealous communist. China’s first table tennis provide firm opened after his victory and known as itself Double Happiness. The primary Happiness was Rong’s victory in Dortmund, which coincided with the second Happiness: the tenth anniversary of Mao’s 1949 institution of the Individuals’s Republic of China.

Desk tennis flourished in China after Rong’s victory. Rong was named coach of the ladies’s nationwide crew. He bought married and had a daughter. It appeared as if his determination to go away Hong Kong behind had paid off. His teammate Zhuang Zedong received the following three males’s singles titles. Zhuang would go on to worldwide renown because the Chinese language face of Ping Pong Diplomacy after placing up a friendship with American participant Glenn Cowan on the 1971 World Championships in Japan.

Rong didn’t develop into well-known like Zhuang Zedong, although. He additionally didn’t dwell to see China’s world dominance in table tennis come to fruition. Nor did he dwell to see the methods he himself had developed whereas serving alone within the union corridor evolve into fundamentals utilized by tens of millions of gamers around the globe.

Within the mid-60s, some table tennis gamers grew to become targets of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The nationwide crew was disbanded. “On the time I anxious about him,” wrote Rong’s childhood buddy Steven Cheung. “…I understood how the Crimson Guards felt about property. Desk tennis ability is a type of property, and I puzzled what would occur to Rong.”

In 1968, three members of the nationwide crew had been positioned beneath home arrest: all three males had come to China from Hong Kong. Collectively, the trio had helped construct the Individuals’s Republic right into a superpower within the sport. In April, Fu Qifang hanged himself within the nationwide crew locker room. Fu was the top coach of the boys’s nationwide crew. A month later, Jiang Yongning hanged himself in his dorm room. Each males had been accused of spying by Mao’s Crimson Guard.

Rong was additionally accused. On June 20, 1968, solely 9 years after Dortmund, he strung a leap rope over the branches of an elm tree. The author Keane Shum compiled an inventory of his alleged crimes. “That he cherished studying Western novels, that he loved listening to classical music, and that he missed Hong Kong.”

Rong Guotuan was discovered useless with a word in his pocket. He was 30 years outdated.

I’m not a spy; please don’t suspect me. I’ve allow you to down. I treasure my popularity greater than my life.

Eric Nusbaum is a author and former editor at VICE, and the creator of the Sports activities Tales e-newsletter, which you’ll subscribe to here. His work has appeared in Deadspin, ESPN the Journal, Sports activities Illustrated, and the Finest American Sports activities Writing anthology, amongst different publications.

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