I’d originally wanted to write a book explaining why different countries chose different national sports. It turned out to be hard book to sell, so I ended up centering on China and the history of table tennis. It was obviously the grandest of the national sports stories; after all, the key moment in East/West relations in the 20th century was named ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’.
The more I dug, the stranger the story became. I knew it would begin with a ping-pong playing British aristocrat spying for the Soviets and that it would end with Mao’s outreach to Nixon. I didn’t know it would lead me to atom bomb survivors, Trotsky, Stalin, several American presidents as well as Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. More importantly, it led me to interview many surviving national team players in Beijing and Shanghai – they were first hand witnesses to the birth of Modern China. There were stories of the Great Famine, of the Cultural Revolution, of Nixon’s approach to China – all wrapped up in the story of ping pong.
I’d first asked myself the question ‘Why do three hundred million Chinese play ping pong?’ when I was in Beijing watching the game at the 2008 Olympics. When a former player explained to me that it was because of an Englishman called Ivor Montagu, I was stunned. His nephew was my father’s oldest friend. None of us knew he had spied for the Soviets. Yet wherever I started rooting around, coincidences piled on coincidences. Normally, when I get towards the end of writing a book, I’m slightly bored by the subject and ready to move on. In this case, after four straight years, I felt I could probably continue for another four. Luckily, editors have deadlines too.