• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Ping-pong diplomacy: when sport changed history

ByVictor Gautier

Feb 20, 2023
Two ping pong paddles on a table. One of them is resting on a ping pong ball.

Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China in July 1972, making possible the normalisation of the relations between both countries after decades of rivalry. His visit may not have been possible without a chance encounter between two table tennis players.

At the end of the Second World War, the world became divided into two sides. The Western bloc was composed of the United States and other Western countries with capitalist ideologies. The Soviet Union led the Eastern bloc, composed of countries from Eastern Europe and Asia sharing a communist doctrine.

Although China was among the victors of the war in 1945, it was quickly divided by a civil war between communists and nationalists. The former contingent, led by Mao Zedong, triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek’s combatants and forced them to flee to the island of Taiwan. Mao thus proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing in 1949 and initially allied with the USSR to modernise the country. However, China distanced itself from the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953 and became increasingly less aligned with the Eastern Bloc. Mao’s China remained internationally isolated through the early 1970s, until table tennis came into play…

From March 28 to April 7 1971, the 31st World Table Tennis Championships were held in Nagoya, Japan. One afternoon during the competition, 19-year-old American player Glenn Cowan began training with Chinese athlete Liang Geliang. As they left the training camp, Cowan discovered the shuttle carrying the American athletes had already departed without him. He accepted Liang’s proposal to take the Chinese team’s bus back to the hotel.

During the ride back, Cowan met the rest of the Chinese team, including triple world champion Zhuang Zedong. As the journey concluded, Zhuang offered Cowan a silk stole depicting the Huangshan Mountains as a reminder of their encounter. The next day at the gym, Glenn Cowan gave Zhuang a gift in return: a tee shirt adorned with a peace emblem that he had purchased in Japan.

This gesture of friendship aroused the interest of journalists, who immortalised the meeting and relayed the event in their newspapers. In an interview with one reporter, Cowan said he wanted to visit all the countries he hadn’t been to before, including China… and that is why the Chinese team invited the American delegation to visit their country once the competition was over.

When Mao Zedong and his Prime Minister Zhou Enlai first heard the news, they were hostile to the idea. However, after quickly identifying the political stakes of this invitation, Mao decided to receive the American team in his country.

On April 10th 1971, fifteen members of the American table tennis delegation set foot in Chinese territory for a seven-day exhibition tour. The first Americans allowed to enter China since 1949 visited important cultural sites such as the Beijing Summer Palace and the Great Wall of China. The trip was also punctuated by ping-pong games that the Chinese organised.

A rapprochement between both countries, until then ideological enemies, became possible as a result of the visit. The friendship speech addressed to American table tennis players by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai on April 14th was followed a few hours later by President Nixon’s announcement that he would lift a series of sanctions and bans on China. The friendship between these table tennis teams thus gave rise to a new era of diplomatic relations.

Successive trips to Beijing by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in July 1971 and US President Richard Nixon in July 1972 unblocked the situation between the two former opponents. On October 25th 1971, the People’s Republic of China was admitted to the United Nations and the Security Council instead of Taiwan, which had represented China in the eyes of the world since 1950.

“Ping-pong diplomacy” therefore proved to be a success for both countries, which would continue to draw closer ties as the Chinese economy expanded in the late 1970s. While it is not the most popular sport in the world, table tennis nevertheless changed the course of history… no small achievement!

Image “PING PONG” by zimpenfish is licensed under CC BY 2.0.