WASHINGTON, July 6, 2013 —Within minutes of Dennis Rodman suggesting he should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize for his trip to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Un, thousands of articles appeared to make light of the enormity and absurdity of Rodman’s hubris.
I’d humbly like to suggest that they’re all wrong.
At first glance, Rodman’s suggestions sound absolutely ridiculous—another outrageous comment from an athlete who’s made a career out of being outrageous.
After all, whoever heard of a lone, flamboyant athlete inspiring a shift in international policy with an antagonistic Asian communist state?
Unless, of course, we count Glenn Cowan: an anti-establishment, flamboyant, wild dressing athlete with crazy hair, who’s naive attempt to forge friendship through sports put him on the cover of Time magazine and whose “Ping Pong Diplomacy” opened a new age in US – China relations.
In some respects, Cowan was even more audacious than Rodman. Representing America at the 31st annual World Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan in the spring of 1971, Cowan managed to lose his tour bus, and inadvertently wandered onto the Chinese teams’ bus instead.
He was surrounded by a team whose nation was at its height of anti-American zeal, with slogans like “Down with American Imperialism,” and who had fought against the Americans in a war that cost over 35,000 American lives in Korea less than a generation prior.
Chinese athletes had been coached by Mao himself to “regard the ping pong ball as the head of your capitalist (American) enemy.”
Flying in the face of conventional wisdom and political sentiment, Cowan, in the midst of a hostile crowd, did the unthinkable—he talked sports. Over the course of their bus ride, Cowan managed to bond with a team raised from birth to fear and distrust Americans, through their joint love of sport.
Despite his outrageous appearance and flamboyant personality, his parting exchange of gifts with the Chinese team leader made international news at home and abroad. China interpreted the action as expressing a larger American sentiment of goodwill, and immediately responded by sending out an invitation to the entire team to come to China as guests, becoming the first American delegation to do so since 1949.
At the time, Cowan and his teammates were referred to as the most “improbable” and “naive” group of diplomats in history (fun fact: “Improbable Dennis Rodman North Korean diplomacy” currently generates over 190,000 results in Google).
While in China, the American team was celebrated throughout the country, ultimately playing exhibition matches to an audience of over 18,000 with the Chinese Premier watching and cheering in approval. Chinese onlookers regarded Cowan’s wild antics and larger-than-life personality with disbelief and fascination.
Returning from the trip, which concluded in photo-ops and private discussions with China’s top government officials, Cowan caused another yet another national stir, as the 18 year old told the American press that he would be an ideal candidate to mediate relations between the heads of China and the United States.
For all of his ego, outlandishness, and controversy, Cowan’s actions did in fact encourage an unprecedented opportunity to follow up the goodwill he created with high level political discussions, cultural interchange, and, ultimately, the visit to China by president Nixon that would change history forever.
Many expected the team, and Cowan in particular, to be major contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Cowan, to an almost uncanny degree, was considered to be the Dennis Rodman of his era. The parallels between Cowan’s trip to China, and Rodman’s visit with the Globetrotters to North Korea—which even included a round of ping pong before their major exhibition basketball event –are extraordinary. The relevance of such a visit can be dismissed only by those woefully ignorant of the rarity of such an invitation in a country famous for its isolation and rejection of foreigners.
Where Cowan was the head of the first delegation invited to China to meet Premier Zhou Enlai, Rodman was the head of the first American delegation to meet Kim Jong Un. Given the Kim family’s love of basketball—in the last visit with a Korean head of state, Madeleine Albright brought Kim Jong Il a basketball signed by Michael Jordan—Pyongyang watchers believe Kim’s interest and enthusiasm for the event was indeed sincere. In a move considered surprising and deeply relevant to many, event co-ordinators even organized both teams to be compromised of both American and Korean players.
The mere fact that Kim Jong Un allowed state media to present himself laughing, smiling and praising Rodman and the American team is absolutely unprecedented. In a nation where hundreds of thousands of political elite scramble to interpret the implications of every official photo, such images carry enormous weight with policy makers and everyday Koreans alike.
Whether or not Obama will follow in the footsteps of Nixon and Kissinger in using the opportunity to explore a shift in dialog remains to be seen. Nevertheless, both China and America still consider the brash, arrogant, outrageously dressed Glenn Cowan as being a major catalyst in the warming of their relations. Those who dismiss Rodman’s potential for influence as ridiculous should consider sitting out for a few games to study the playbooks of 71.
Andrew Simon is a writers and editor-in-chief at Hip Hop Republicans. As a world public speaking champion and professional web designer, Andrew has provided public speaking consulting, speech writing, and web design services for a wide range state, national, and international campaigns in the public and private sector.His political focus is on minority outreach, urban socioeconomic development, and policy promoting entrepreneurship and school choice as a tool for social mobility.
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