It is with great sadness that the death of Zhuang Zedong is announced; he passed away in Beijing on Sunday 10th February 2013 following a period of illness, he suffered from cancer.
He was 73 year old.
Deciding who was the greatest table tennis player ever is an intriguing endeavour. It is the same if trying to determine the name of the greatest ever Chinese sporting personality or even the most-shrewd diplomat who changed the course of history.
It is very much in the latter that he played a major role in enhancing understanding between the east and west, it is his legacy.
Zhuang Zedong saw people as people, sportsmen as sportsmen, table tennis players as table tennis players; they belonged to the same family and he saw sport as a means of promoting harmony and understanding.
In many ways his gestures were a forerunner of the ideals promoted by Killerspin; create competition in the table tennis arena by inviting the Americans to play in China, create understanding and friendship outside.
Equally, show the American people, the athleticism of table tennis; his method was to stage matches between the United States and China; Killerspin’s was to organise the likes of the Chicago International Table Tennis Festival.
Different events, same concept and the same ideals; sport and understanding combine to equal friendship.
Zhuang Zedong was of a generation that had been taught capitalism, promoted in the west, was totally alien to communist beliefs propagated in China; basically such ideals were the enemy of his country’s thinking.
However at the 1971 World Championships, Zhang Zedong presented a gift of a painting of the Huangshang Mountains to Glen Cowan, a member of the American team who for whatever reason had found himself on the Chinese bus returning from the venue.
Zhuang Zedong ignored the pressure from his team mates not to befriend Americans; the act led to a thaw in relations between the United States and China.
An American delegation was immediately invited to the People’s Republic of China, the initiative was applauded by Chairman Mao Zedong; “Ping Pong Dimplomacy” was born.
"Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese, I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people”, are reportedly the words of Zhuang Zedong when giving the present to Glenn Cowan.
The event caught the attention of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who swiftly offered an invitation to the Americans.
"Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping pong, he knows good diplomacy too," were Mao's Zedong’s understood remarks.
In 1972, Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, visited China.
The effect of Zhuang Zedong’s actions were everlasting and quite remarkable; even more remarkable was the levels he achieved in sport, especially when infant days are considered.
Born in Beijing on Sunday 25th August 1940, he suffered from ill health when young; in fact he had to use crutches to aid walking.
He followed the principles of the martial art, Wu Shiu, gradually the young boy’s body became stronger and guided by his father, a physician and a sportsman; he was encouraged to play basketball and football.
However, Zhuang Zedong had other ideas; he chose table tennis.
At the age of 13, he joined the Youth Sports School at the Children’s Cultural Centre in Beijing; at the time a recently opened venue with 100 table tennis tables.
In 1957 he made his debut for the Chinese National Team in a contest against Hungary; he made an immediate impact. He beat Elemer Gyetvai, at the time one of Europe’s leading players.
Later, in 1959, reached the Men’s Singles final at the Hungarian Open, losing in a five games to the host nation’s Zoltan Berczik; soon after at the Scandinavian Open he dominated proceedings, departing with three gold medals.
In 1961 he added to his trophy collection by winning the Men’s Singles title at the Chinese National Championships.
He beat Li Furong in the final.
The win meant selection for the Chinese National Team at the 1961 World Championships staged in his home city of Beijing, the first time China had ever staged the event.
He won the Men’s Singles title and retained the crown in 1963 in Prague and in 1965 in Ljubljana; on each occasion beating Li Furong in the final.
Sadly for Zhuang Zedong, owing to the Cultural Revolution, China did not participate in the 1967 World Championships in Stockholm.
It is one of the great unanswered questions of sport, in the modern era when the World Championships are held on a biennial basis, could he have become the only player to have won the Men’s Singles title on four consecutive occasions?
Overall, he played in four World Championships; in 1971 when political problems had subsided somewhat, he competed in Nagoya but was not the force of a decade earlier.
However, in all four World Championships, he was a member of the gold medal winning Chinese Men’s Team and in 1965 had won the Men’s Doubles crown with Xu Xinsheng. Four World Championships, eight titles, it is a record to stand the test of time.
Twice married Zhuang Zedong was later jailed after Mao Zedong’s death; after the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 he was released and progressed to coach table tennis in the provinces.
In the history books of the world, for more than one reason, Zhuang Zedong has a special place.
Undoubtedly, in the past 50 years the most successful nation in the world in the sport of table tennis has been China.
Accepted in the early 1990s European men ascended to the heights but overall no country can match the achievements of China in modern times, an aura of invincibly surrounds that country’s name when table tennis is mentioned.
Was it not Zhuang Zedong, in particular, who started that sensation by winning in Beijing in 1961?
Prior to Zhuang Zedong, the country had only ever spawned one World champion. Rong Guotan had won in Dortmund two years earlier in 1959.
In 1961 at the World Championships in Beijing, Rong Guotan was sensationally beaten by the 16 year old Brazilian Ubiraci Rodrigues de Costa, better known as “Biriba”. Zhuang Zedong restored Chinese pride by winning the Men’s Singles title and by retaining the title at the next two World Championships.
The aura of invincibility had emerged. It remains to this day.
A special player, a special man, a true legend. a man who understood the deep value of sport; the contribution to table tennis immense; he is sadly missed.