The Incredible Story of Ivor Montagu: The Godfather of Chinese Table Tennis
June 21, 2019
This year’s World Table Tennis Championships, in Hungary, are sure to be dominated by Chinese players, just as they have been for the last 60 years. But it’s thanks to an Englishman (an aristocrat and socialist called Ivor Montagu) that China is so strong in the sport. Ian Valentine tells his amazing story.
Born into one of England’s few millionaire families at the start of the 20th Century, the Honourable Ivor Montagu could have chosen a conventional path through life. As a boy, he played around the ankles of kings and queens, prime ministers and generals. A career in banking, politics or the military was waiting on a silver platter.
His older brother Ewen made his family proud. He was called to the criminal bar, and then served with distinction for British military intelligence during the Second World War. Little Ivor was equally bright. He possessed the same energy and generous nature. Yet, he was anything but conventional.
As a teenager, Montagu was captivated by George Bernard Shaw’s Socialism for Millionaires, forming a lifelong devotion to the ideals of communism that ran contrary to his class and wealth. This was 1917. Lenin’s revolution had swept aside the Russian monarchy. Could the same happen in England? The threat sent a chill through the Establishment. For the rebel Montagu, this subversive philosophy was thrilling.
His list of achievements in the 1920s and 1930s reflects the intellectual turbulence of the period. He was a pioneer of art-house cinema, helping to liberalise the London film scene by importing avant-garde films from across the world. Famously he stepped in to edit Alfred Hitchcock’s early film The Lodger, which was destined for obscurity. The picture became a critical and commercial success, launching Hitchcock’s stellar career.
Montagu became dedicated to the communist cause. In 1929 he travelled to Turkey, where he befriended the exiled Leon Trotsky. As a journalist for the left-wing Daily Worker newspaper, he documented the news of the day through a socialist lens, which further alienated him from his conservative family.
When he married the love of his life, Eileen, a working-class single mother, the public scandal was splashed across every newspaper. The Queen of England even telegrammed her condolences to Montagu’s mother. His father, the 2nd Baron Swaythling, slashed his errant son’s inheritance.
During the Second World War, the Montagu brothers were both fighting Germany, but from very different perspectives. Working for British military intelligence, Ewen conceived Operation Mincemeat: an audacious plan to dump a body, loaded with false information, in the Mediterranean. This elaborate ruse successfully tricked Hitler into thinking the Allied forces would invade Greece rather than Sicily.
Meanwhile, Ivor was feeding information about wartime Britain to Soviet military intelligence, under the codename Intelligentsia. In 1959, when Montagu received the Lenin Peace Prize, the announcement read: “Although he was born into an aristocratic family… the life of this man is a vivid example of a progressive representative of the Western intelligentsia finding his real calling in joint struggle with the masses of the people”. This inside joke was a clear reference to their agent’s spying past.
Yet, for all his ability as a cinematographer, provocateur and spy, Montagu’s greatest social impact came through the sport of table tennis. During the 1920s he single-handedly elevated the status of ping-pong from an English after-dinner frivolity into a global, competitive sport.
Aged just 17, as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Montagu founded (and funded) the English Table Tennis Association. The name ping-pong was trademarked. He established the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) four years later, and would sit as its president for the next 40 years.
He also led England in several international matches, including a feisty encounter with Hungary in 1929. His trump card was a rosy-cheeked teenager named Fred Perry (who would later win the Wimbledon Championships in lawn tennis). On the day of the finals, Montagu was forced to smuggle his prodigy into the building through a coal shuttle to avoid the partisan crowds outside. Perry eventually won through, earning a ten-minute ovation from the spectators, including the Hungarian president Ivor Montagu and all his cabinet ministers.
Montagu despised Hungary’s right-wing politics, but he was still impressed by the political impact of his favourite pastime. He had long recognised the simplicity and affordability of ping-pong in bringing the benefits of sport to poorer members of society. This was a game that suited enclosed, airless spaces such as factory floors, school halls and gymnasia. In his 1924 book Table Tennis Today, Montagu codified the rules for the first time, leaving room for players to adapt their game to whatever materials they could find. Many sports of the age such as croquet, polo and lawn tennis were elitist. Montagu’s table tennis was deliberately designed to be egalitarian.
At the start of 1950, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was just a few months old, Montagu wrote a letter of welcome to Chairman Mao’s new government. He had immediately identified the potential of table tennis – known in China as ping-pang – as the ideal sport to demonstrate the young nation’s prowess on the world stage. Mao Zedong was on the same wavelength.
At the time many Western governments and sports organisations turned a cold shoulder to the PRC, choosing to acknowledge Taiwan as the official government instead. By contrast, Montagu extended the hand of friendship to Mao. During a visit to Peking (now Beijing) in 1952, he received VIP treatment at the national championships. The next year, the PRC became an official member of the ITTF.
This personal gesture was not lost on Mao who immediately diverted resources into a national training programme to identify and nurture the most talented players. By the end of the decade the PRC had its first world champion. Montagu kept the momentum building. His choice of Peking as host city for the World Championships in 1961 – a tournament that China has virtually dominated ever since – helped to cement the sport within the national psyche.
To some, Montagu was blinkered, naive and treacherous. For others, he was creative and whole-hearted – a maverick who never wavered from his idealism during his unconventional life.
Either way, his legacy as the godfather of table tennis is beyond dispute. By the time he died in 1984, table tennis had become a truly global sport, regularly played by hundreds of millions of people in China and across the world.