Half a century ago, 15 American table-tennis players walked across a bridge near Hong Kong into mainland China, “and an astonished world watched in disbelief”, says Daniel Kaplan in The Athletic. Their week of exhibition matches against Chinese players, who often lost games deliberately to flatter their visitors, became known as “ping-pong diplomacy”. At the time, formal US-China relations were non-existent. The American players were in Japan for a tournament when they received the impromptu invitation, and their embassy had to cover up wording on their passports that explicitly ruled out visits to China.
On arrival they found a world of “conformity and overarching propaganda”. Chairman Mao’s photo was plastered on every building and every citizen carried around his Little Red Book. But China and the US shared a common foe in the Soviet Union, and relations between the two nations started to warm. President Nixon visited China in February 1972 – and, two months later, a Chinese table-tennis team was invited to the US.
Dud advice from the Royal Studs
Michael Oswald, a former manager of the Royal Studs and racing adviser to the Queen and the Queen Mother, has died aged 86. One of his favourite tales from decades of royal service concerned Harvest Song, one of the Queen’s horses, says The Times. He told her page, Barry Mitford, that he shouldn’t bet on the 50-1 outsider in a race – “I had more chance of winning the 100m at the Olympics” – but Harvest Song won by five and a half lengths. When Oswald called the Queen afterwards, she said: “Barry is standing next to me. If I were you, I would find some dark glasses and a good disguise next time to come anywhere near this place.”
On another occasion, racehorse trainer Nicky Henderson tells the Racing Post, one of the Queen’s horses won a race for which the trophies were bronze sets of pants. Worried that this might be “deemed inappropriate”, the organisers offered a vase instead. But Oswald made it clear that he wanted the pants and “announced he would be driving them straight to Windsor Castle. The following morning I spoke with the Queen, who said the Duke of Edinburgh had been highly entertained by the prize.”
Fourth base? We prefer one across
Baseball players are obsessed with crosswords, says Zach Buchanan in The Athletic. It helps them to keep their minds sharp and while away off-duty hours. In the 1980s, the New York Mets had a quintet who “attacked the vaunted New York Times puzzle daily”. The former San Francisco Giants player Brian Wilson takes 20 crosswords with him when he travels. And when the Tampa Bay Rays’ Eric Hinske featured as a clue in USA Today’s crossword – a birthday present from his wife – he got dozens of text messages from players, coaches and trainers who’d spotted him.
“No one is claiming that baseball players are among the world’s word geniuses, especially the players themselves.” USA Today’s crossword, the sport’s favourite, isn’t seen as that challenging by aficionados. Mike Fetters, a coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, is known as the “Crossword Bully” for his habit of standing over people’s shoulders while they work on a puzzle he has already completed. “I know a lot of words,” he says. “I just can’t put them together to make great sentences.”
“The last time England’s top six fell this quickly, they were facing Shane Warne.” – Sports presenter Mark Pougatch on the Super League