A quirky, thoroughly enjoyable trek through the implausible beginnings of international table tennis and the colorful characters-cum-diplomats behind it.
Griffin (Dizzy City, 2007, etc.) has the dexterity and cleverness to take on the story of British aristocrat Ivor Montagu, son of an English baron who was schooled at Cambridge, where he took up Ping-Pong at the end of World War I. An imperial British entertainment on the wane at the time, “teetering between sport and punch line,” Ping-Pong would get its boost when Montagu renamed it table tennis (he discovered that Ping-Pong was trademarked by a toy manufacturer) and established its rules and regulations, organizing the Table Tennis Association and promoting championships, first across Europe, then behind the Iron Curtain and into Asia. He wrote: “I saw in Table Tennis a sport particularly suited to the lower paid,” he wrote. “I plunged into the game as a crusade.” Indeed, Montagu became a devoted communist; he also worked in film, importing the work of Soviet filmmakers and helping Alfred Hitchcock “weave outlandish plots into ordinary settings.” Shadowed by MI5, Montagu traveled seamlessly from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War to the world tennis championship in Prague. After the war, he lobbied to include the Soviets in international competition, as well as Japan and communist China, where the sport was highly popular and political. Griffin delineates the significant championship matches held in Tokyo in 1956 and in China in 1961, at the height of Mao Zedong’s catastrophic famine, which the world did not yet fathom. The same Chinese players disgraced during the Cultural Revolution were quickly rehabilitated in 1971 in order to act as convenient instruments of détente for the two frosty antagonists, Mao and Nixon.
Griffin bites off a huge story but manages to maintain lively interest in the array of personalities involved.