Li-Ning vs Nike couldn't have happened without ping-pong diplomacy

Little known fact: thirty-nine years ago this week, U.S.-China relations made a historic shift that altered the course of the world. And all because a hippie missed the bus.

On April 6, 1971, Glenn Cowan, a floppy-haired, purple bell-bottom wearing, drug-ingesting member of the U.S. Table Tennis Team competing in Japan missed the team bus when he stuck around the training facility to practice a little longer.

He was befriended by Chinese player Zhuang Zedong, who gave him a silkscreen of the Huangshan Mountains. Cowan returned the favor with a red-white-and blue T-shirt emblazoned with a peace emblem and the words "Let it Be."

As a result of this chance encounter, the Chinese government invited the U.S. team to tour China, the first official visit by Americans since the Communist revolution in 1949. This "ping-pong diplomacy" led to Nixon's historic visit the following year and the opening of China to the rest of the world. Time Magazine called it "the ping heard round the world."

I learned this and more when I visited Li-Ning, the first American retail showroom for the Chinese maker of athletic shoes and apparel. The grand opening last month caused a stir here in Portland, home to a couple of little athletic companies you may have heard of: Nike and Adidas. The local giants both have reasons to be annoyed with the interloper.

First off, Li-Ning's logo looks suspiciously like the Nike swoosh. And company founder, 1984 gold-medal Olympic gymnast Li-Ning, was the guy who swung on cables around the Bird's Nest (at the 2008 Beijing games) to light the Olympic cauldron. This despite the fact that Adidas spent $80 million sponsoring the games.

Then again, even if you didn't know that Nike grossed $19 billion last year compared to Li-Ning's $1 billion, you could tell from their showrooms. Niketown is a mini-mall featuring about two dozen boutiques each the size of Li Ning's retail space, which features only about two dozen pairs of shoes. And those shoes are for such popular sports as badminton, table tennis and tai chi. Li-Ning does have a line of basketball shoes featuring LA Clippers star Baron Davis, but the display says it all.

Nike basketball displayHere's Nike's basketball display:
















Li Ning's shoe displayAnd here's Li Ning's:
















Honey, I shrunk the basketball star.

Wearing Shaq's size 21 shoesStill, none other than the supersize Shaquille O'Neal endorses Li-Ning in China, which provided me the opportunity to step into one of O'Neal's size 21 shoes.

Now, anyone who diminishes Li-Ning's ambitions does so at their own peril. China has hit upon the ultimate winning combination for world domination: totalitarian capitalism.

Unlike the U.S. and its companies, China isn't constrained by such pesky issues as human rights and a clean environment. So they can mine the minerals necessary to fuel digital technology without any concern for safety. I'm not saying this is why a 100-year old Chinese woman grew a horn on her head, but you've got to wonder. As witnessed by the opening ceremonies at the Olympics or these outrageously surreal acrobats, China can, shall we say, "compel" its citizens to work for a precision and quality unthinkable in a free society.

On a happier note, Li-Ning's success may simply come down to more ping-pong diplomacy. According to James Winkelman of Paddle Palace in Portland, a supply distributor run by Judy Bochenski Horowitz (who was the youngest member of the 1971 U.S. Team that made the historic tour of China), table tennis seems to be making a comeback in the U.S. "The Asian population is growing in this country," he says, adding that the sport is particularly hospitable for aging boomers, as well.

Thirty-nine years ago, the thought of Americans visiting China seemed impossible. Thirty-nine years from now, we could all be playing ping-pong in Li-Ning shoes. By that time, however, perhaps we can send democracy over the net to the Chinese.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.

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