U.S. RUNS DRY IN OLD GOLD PLACES

DAY 13: Old gold. New gold. And a little white ball.

BEIJING – Let me throw some names at you. Carl Lewis. Bob Beamon. Bob Hayes. Evelyn Ashford. Bob Seagren. Cassius Clay. Sugar Ray Leonard. Greg Louganis. These are athletes who became famous by winning Olympic gold in sports in which the U.S. once excelled – the 100 meters, long jump, pole vault, boxing, diving. There was a time where you could check off American medals in certain events before we even marched in the Opening Ceremonies.

But look around Beijing. What do you see? Jamaicans raising their fists in the sprints, with Americans behind, absent or rubbing their hamstrings. Boxers from Kazakhstan advancing to the medal rounds, with nary an American in sight. Long jumpers splashing sand in the face of American men, who for the first time ever, couldn’t even make the finals.

Heck, the 1,500 meters (the “metric mile” as they used to call it), which once had us glued to TV sets rooting for Jim Ryun, this year was won by … Bahrain.

Now, I don’t mind losing to the Russians or the Chinese, since I can at least find their countries on a map. But Bahrain? What do they run on there, sand? And this was after a frustrated United States succumbed to importing its 1,500-meter contenders, including Bernard Lagat, the former Kenyan two-time medalist, and Lopez Lomong, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Nice work. Lagat didn’t even make the final. And it’s a good thing Lomong carried our flag during the Opening Ceremonies; that was the last time he was in front of anybody.

He finished last in his semifinal.

The national pastime

So where’s the answer? Well. Why not go back to where it all began? And so I did. Finally, after nearly two weeks in this strange and amazing country, where you can get a foot massage at 3 a.m. but you can’t hold a protest in broad daylight, I got in the taxi, ricocheted off 40 other cars, narrowly missed two buses and nine pedestrians, got out, threw up and entered Peking University, where I walked past rows of bicycles and lounging students and finally entered the huge gymnasium. And there I was greeted by the thwick-thwock that started it all.

Ping-Pong.

Don’t tell me “table tennis.” I can’t call it “table tennis.” For one thing, when I hear “table tennis,” I think miniature John McEnroes and Bjorn Borgs, playing on mahogany.

Besides, “Ping-Pong” is what got us to China in the first place. Without Ping-Pong – as we all called it in 1971 – who knows if Beijing is even hosting these Games?

Or don’t you remember? According to the story, a guy named Glenn Cowan, a one-time California college student, was in Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championships, and after a practice, he missed his team bus. A Chinese player waved at him to jump on their bus, which he did. It might have been the most significant bus ride since Rosa Parks.

While on the bus, Cowan, an outgoing guy, tried chatting with the Chinese players. A few minutes later, one of them, Zhuang Zedong, came up from the back and presented Cowan with a gift: a silk screen of the Huangshan Mountains. Cowan wanted to give him something back, but, the story goes, all he had in his bag was a comb.

There were photographers and journalists waiting when the bus stopped. Americans and Chinese did not hang out in those days. It was news. Someone asked Cowan whether he would ever want to visit China, and he said, reportedly, “Of course.”

Word got back to the Chinese government. One thing led to another. And shortly thereafter, in April of 1971, nine American players – including Cowan – crossed a bridge from Hong Kong and played a series of exhibition matches in a previously shut-off nation.

A year later, President Richard Nixon went to China – and the normalization of relations between the two countries had begun.

They called it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”

And here I was.

Thwick-thwock.

An American story

Now the reason this has anything to do with anything is because the Chinese are great at Ping-Pong (OK, table tennis, stop yelling) and they have always been great at table tennis and you don’t see them dropping off in table tennis the way we have in the sprints or the distance events or boxing.

(Really. Boxing. I can’t understand it. We love to fight. We fight on “Jerry Springer.” We have fights on HBO all the time and I never heard of the guys – and I’m a sports writer! How come we can’t beat up a few kids from Kazakhstan?)

So I went to Peking U. (fight song, “Hail, hail to old Peking U, we got a billion, how about you?”) to get some sort of answer. And sure enough, I found it, out on Court 2 – or Table 2 – whacking the little white ball back and forth, in the form of a Chinese-born player named David Zhuang.

Zhuang now lives in New Jersey. He is, sad to say, America’s entire men’s table tennis team in Beijing.

And he’s 44.

I watched him play. The crowd was into it, cheering every point. (I can’t help it, I watch this stuff, I’m thinking “basement.”) Zhuang went the distance with a Nigerian player, both were sweating and needed to wipe down with towels during the breaks. But Zhuang ultimately lost in a long and close match.

In the tunnel afterward, mobbed by three – count ’em, three – American journalists, Zhuang talked about the difference between Chinese players and American players, whom he teaches back in New Jersey.

“I think American kids are more happier,” he said. “They really love the sport. They aren’t forced to play it.”

But why does it stay so popular in China and isn’t so in the States?

“Go check how much money the Chinese make for their gold medals,” Zhuang said, “and you’ll know.”

So that’s it?

He laughed. “What do you think?”

And there, folks, in a nutshell, you have it. The Chinese players are funded by their government. They are paid well for success. As Zhuang put it, once you show you are good enough, “everything is taken care of.”

Meanwhile, American players, Zhuang said, “have to spend their own money and their own time just to play this lovely sport.”

And that, more and more, is the truth about many Olympic endeavors. Yes, U.S. athletes can get some money from the U.S. Olympic Committee, but our kids are not government funded. They aren’t plucked for sports schools. As they’re coming up, they usually have to hold down jobs, take their normal high school and college classes, juggle their schedules, search for sponsors.

The Chinese don’t. Nor do many athletes whose countries we are now losing to in events we once dominated. That’s the way it goes. Do we want your tax dollars going to train a wrestler, a cyclist or a synchronized swimmer?

The athletes might say, “Please, yes!” I’m not so sure. I kind of like the fact that we know the difference between work and play, that we don’t let government officials start making rules for athletes.

Take what happened to Zhuang. As soon as he made application to move to the United States, “I lost all my opportunity in China. Even though I had to wait 10 years for a green card. It was my prime time. I was 17. But why will they invest in me if I am leaving?”

I don’t like the whole idea of athletes as government investments. I kind of like the image of Cowan, jumping on another country’s bus, chitchatting, and helping in a small way to change the world.

By the way, the story goes that Cowan ultimately found a gift to give Zedong in return. It was a red, white and blue T-shirt with a peace sign over the words “Let It Be.”

Maybe, instead of fretting over medals we once owned and no longer do, we should heed that message.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Missed a day of Olympic columns? Go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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