In 1971, Ping-Pong—the “ping heard round the world”— helped to create the first person-to-person, and then diplomatic, ties between two Cold War enemies: China and the United States.

Sports have become an essential part of life in the global village, and the Olympic Games are the most important of sporting events, drawing 11,009 athletes from 201 nations in 2004. Sponsorship of the games, by multinational companies such as Coca-Cola and Visa, reached €248 million, and the total cost of producing the 2004 Athens Olympics is estimated to have been US$10–12 billion.

Sports have many social functions. They teach cooperation and fair play and allow for aggressive competition without bloodshed. They keep us healthy, create an environment for casual companionship, and even provide a venue for business negotiations. During the last century, since the establishment of the modern Olympic Games, they have become a crucial way for nations to interact. International sports have expanded far beyond the Olympics, too, as regional games and championships in particular sports have taken on new prominence.

The Olympics draw a larger global audience than any other event, apart from war. And in one sense that is the point: to provide a venue for friendly, rather than violent, competition between nations. As the countdown to the Beijing Olympics enters its final year, sports and politics will be as closely connected—and debated—as they have ever been. There are a few harsh critics who see the 2008 Olympics as the equivalent of the so-called Nazi Games of 1936, but for most people, Beijing 2008 holds as much promise as peril. As always, the chance to host the Olympics is an opportunity for a nation to draw the world’s attention, as well as the crowds, and to show its ancient treasures, modern tourist destinations, infrastructure, and organizational precision to the world. At the 2008 Olympics, China will confirm its visible and assertive new role on the world stage.

There is no real historical equivalent in Olympic history, because China’s position in the world is unique. The world’s most populous nation, with the fastest economic growth and the oldest civilization, it only reinstated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1979. The Nagoya Resolution of 1979 that led to China’s readmittance stipulated that China would use its name, flag, and anthem, while Taiwan was required to use the name “Chinese Taipei.”

Origins of Ping-Pong Diplomacy

But sports played a role in Chinese diplomacy years before China’s readmittance to the IOC. As Time magazine said, it was “the ping heard round the world,” when in April 1971, the U.S. table tennis team, visiting Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championship, was invited out of the blue to visit the People’s Republic of China—a nation that no American citizen had been allowed to enter for 22 years. The visit took place three months later, in July. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was quoted as saying, “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy.” After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, seeing the USSR as a more potent threat than the United States, decided that improved relations with the United States would increase China’s international security as well as stature. Meanwhile, President Richard M. Nixon believed that ties with the People’s Republic would counterbalance the Soviet Union, improve Nixon’s own political standing at home, and improve the United States’ position in the Vietnam War.

In 1970, the Chinese offered to arrange a high-level meeting, and that offer led eventually to national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971. But that same month, in an event that may have been spontaneous and personal, as is usually claimed, or may have been encouraged by diplomatic efforts, as some suggest, the young American and Chinese table tennis players, many of them teenagers, changed the way ordinary people in their countries thought about so-called Red or Communist China and the decadent, imperialistic United States.

Tim Boggan was a 40-year-old English professor and table tennis player traveling with the U.S. team when the invitation was made. According to Boggan, everyone was immediately excited by the idea of going to China, though they were naive about the politics. A 15-year-old player had to call her parents for permission; another was worried about being amongst atheists, while a player of Korean descent decided against going. They knew it was important “because everyone was making such a fuss.” Glenn Cowan, described by Boggan as a “hippy opportunist,” got most of the press, because he had befriended Chinese star Zhuang Zedong and exchanged gifts. (Cowan’s gift to Zhuang was a T-shirt with red-white-and-blue peace symbol and the words “Let It Be.”) But the entire team was besieged by news bureaus wanting first-hand information.

The team was treated royally. According to Boggan, they were sometimes offered five meals a day: “no Ming emperor was treated so well.” And the team members did get to know, and like, their Chinese companions. Boggan recalls that despite their regimented similarity in clothing, the members of the Chinese team were all distinctive individuals: “Though they dressed robotically and praised Mao all the time, we could see that they were otherwise very different.”

This “people-to-people” exchange, which was extolled by the press and by both governments, provided President Nixon with a backdrop for the major diplomatic shift that was in progress. During the team’s visit, the United States announced the end of a 20-year trade embargo against the People’s Republic, and Nixon himself went to Beijing (20–27 February 1972), the first visit by an American president to China.

China Visits the United States

Naturally, the Americans reciprocated by inviting their Chinese opponents to visit the United States. In this case, a nongovernmental organization, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR), stepped in to organize what became a huge media event, broadcast by every news outlet and publicized in magazines as diverse as Life and Seventeen . The teams traveled on one charter plane; another plane was needed for reporters and camera people. Jan Berris, vice-president of the NCUSCR, a Chinese-speaking foreign service officer, was asked to help organize the tour, which was held in April 1972. She recalls both the challenges—protesters throwing dead rats, for one—and the tremendous enthusiasm inspired by the teams. Upon their arrival in Detroit, the Chinese team was bemused at the sight of a welcoming crowd of people waving Mao’s Little Red Book, an embarrassment because by that time the book was no longer being used in China. But the theme was “friendship first, competition second,” and Berris points out that although the Chinese players completely dominated the matches, somehow U.S. players managed to win surprise victories when the tour landed in their hometowns.

The Chinese players were top athletes, but were also able representatives for their country on a human, personal level. According to Berris, they were uniformly friendly and warm. There were no tantrums or show-off behavior. Even the team’s escorts, who were probably intelligence officers, let all the matches continue in spite of some noisy protests that they clearly would have liked to have seen stopped. The Chinese team traveled and posed for the media as a group, collectively representing the People’s Republic of China. There was not, according to Berris, any of the modern sports celebrity reporting, where individual players are routinely questioned about how they felt during the match and minidocumentaries are run about athletes during major events.

Richard Solomon, now president of the United States Institute of Peace (a congressionally funded institution that first opened its doors in 1986) and author of Chinese Negotiating Behavior, was then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. Speaking on the panel at the annual meeting of the NCUSCR on 14 May 2007, he commented that negotiations between U.S. diplomats, the NCUSCR, and the National Table Tennis Association had had their challenging moments. There were arguments over who was in charge, who would get the visibility, and how to retreat, should things not go well. There were also various fears in the air, relating to international tensions. According to Solomon, a cook at the Chinese embassy was thought to have been poisoned by the Taiwanese. As in any delicate diplomatic effort, those involved wanted to control the agenda and ensure they received credit for positive results while maintaining a safe distance from the inevitable risks. Solomon explains, “Ping-Pong showed how sports can be a political signaling device, a way to reach out to other nations without a full commitment from the government.”

International Relations at a Personal Level

Throughout the 1980s, there were many athletic exchanges that introduced Chinese athletes to huge U.S. audiences across the country, all in the spirit of “friendship before competition.” The NCUSCR kept ticket prices very low so anyone who wanted to attend would be able to. And that is the point of using sports as a diplomatic tool: instead of operating at the elite policy or academic level, efforts like Ping-Pong diplomacy bring international relations into venues that attract ordinary citizens and create interest in the popular media and not just in serious journals and highbrow newspapers. The Chinese government is keeping that in mind with regard to the pricing of its Olympic tickets. As one spokesperson said, “China is a developing country, and our annual income is less than that of people in both Sydney and Athens … The highest price for an Opening Ceremony ticket is half of that for the last Games, and the lowest is only one fifth. For normal competitions, prices of the tickets, both the highest and the lowest, are only one third of those in Athens.”

The table tennis matches of the 1970s helped to change, or begin to change, the negative images Americans had of China, and to change the negative images Chinese had of the United States. This adjunct to professional diplomatic efforts continues today. Chen Haosu, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), was recently quoted in the Chinese press as saying, “Meetings between leaders have to be reinforced by people-to-people contacts, which are the best way to rid mutual suspicion and keep the diplomatic momentum moving forward.”

Lessons for Today

Table tennis only became an Olympic sport in 1988, but it will be a centerpiece at the 2008 games because of its importance in China— and perhaps because of the role it has played in building bridges for China in the early days of its reentry into the international community. It is a sport in which China excels, and it is associated with modern Chinese culture in a positive, heartwarming way. There are many other sports in which China hopes to triumph, and other ways in which it will showcase its prodigious accomplishments of the past decades. But beyond gold medals, the Olympics for China will be about the kind of people-to-people relationship building that was at the center of Ping-Pong diplomacy. As Chen put it, these efforts are “about the attraction of your culture and the image you leave in the hearts of foreigners.”

There’s little doubt that different groups will want to use the drama and media opportunity offered by the Olympic Games for their own ends, to promote their perspectives and priorities. Activist groups may try to use athletes to support particular anti-Chinese government causes, or major corporations and China-U.S. business organizations will try to downplay significant trade and political issues that in fact merit sustained attention by both countries.

China’s reach and influence is expanding far outside Asia, into Africa and Latin America as well as in Europe and North America. Through each nation’s participation in the 2008 games, they will be introducing their citizens to China and developing personal, business, and diplomatic ties.

Source: Christensen, Karen. (2007). The Ping That Changed the World. Guanxi: The China Letter, 15, 1.