This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy (PPD)—a sports and cultural exchange launched when a small group of US table tennis players, on invitation from Beijing, visited China after the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship in Japan. Historians credit the visit for jump-starting US-China relations after 22 years without diplomatic ties and for paving the way for US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. After the US players’ trek to Beijing, PRC players journeyed to the United States on a reciprocal visit in 1972.

To mark the fortieth anniversary of the exchange, USA Table Tennis (USATT) and the Chinese Table Tennis Association—with support from the US and PRC Olympic committees—have arranged celebrations in both countries through a cooperative agreement. A delegation of PRC officials, coaches, and players, including men and women who participated in the 1971 exchange and current elite and junior players, will visit the United States in early July for celebrations at the Milwaukee Art Museum and exhibition matches at the 2011 US table tennis open in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. USATT CEO Michael D. Cavanaugh explained, “The aim of including elite junior players in the celebration is to nurture the legacy aspect of PPD.”

The delegation will also stop in San Francisco, California, to take part in cultural, educational, and diplomatic exchanges related to the anniversary, and the US leg of the tour will end at the Richard M. Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. The US delegation of officials, coaches, and players will make a reciprocal visit to China in late October to continue the celebration.

Five of the original players on the US team recently spoke to CBR about their memories of the 1971 trip, thoughts on the significance of PPD, and the future of table tennis in the United States. All of the players have returned to China—some several times—since their first visit and are stunned by the country’s economic and social transformation. These five veteran team members still actively play and promote table tennis.

Their memories of the 1971 trip include meeting PRC Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing; visiting the Great Wall; attending the opening ceremony; playing in exhibition matches in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai; and seeing the China that had been behind closed doors. Judy (Bochenski) Hoarfrost, the youngest member of the 1971 PPD team and the owner of Paddle Palace Table Tennis, recalled additional memories:

“The people wore green Red Guard uniforms and dark colored ‘Mao suits,’ and women had short cropped hair or tight braids. Political slogans and giant photos of Chairman Mao Zedong were plastered all over buildings and walls. There were bicycles everywhere, and people packed onto buses. The homes we visited looked barren. Learning about the Cultural Revolution [1966-76] and the official political philosophy was educational. We read from Mao’s Red Book and went to political opera. I had my picture taken underneath a sign that read, ‘People of the World, Unite and Defeat the US Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs.’ Being in China at that time was like stepping into a completely different world.”

Some people question the degree to which sporting events and cultural exchanges can help improve political ties between countries. Tim Boggan, an original PPD team member who is a writer, editor, and USATT historian, related: “The Olympics—which has a limited number of participants—and major tournaments such as the World Table Tennis Championships—where hundreds of participants from 136 countries recently participated—are conduits for international relations. For a week, players, coaches, and officials from around the world come together on courts or in the stands, at equipment booths or in meetings, and for cafeteria-style meals in huge halls. You can’t help but see the large world and know that you’re a real part of it. The different powers that be realize they have a common sports goal and must get along with one another.”

George Braithwaite, an original PPD team member who is a USATT certified national-level coach and continues to win national titles, added: “Where governments have failed to communicate effectively in a positive way, sports have succeeded. The Olympic games provide the biggest and greatest arenas for improving relations across nations. Though it may be naïve to think that the world could exist simply through sports, sports can help considerably in the same way that PPD brought two of the world’s greatest powers together by paving the way for improved relations.”

The teams have helped celebrate the anniversaries of PPD and the establishment of US-China diplomatic relations in the past, and they remain enthusiastic about promoting the importance of PPD—and the sport itself—in the future. When discussing the goals of the fortieth anniversary celebration, Hoarfrost related: “The fortieth anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy is a continuation of what we started in 1971. It is a way of celebrating the wonderful and unique way that table tennis was able to touch the hearts of people in China and the United States. We celebrate peace, we celebrate sport, and we celebrate moving forward together to build a wonderful and stable world for ourselves and our children.”

Boggan remarked: “Peace and friendship are the first goal, and competition is second. Cooperation between the two countries—diplomacy—is the imperative. In my view, the aim is to foster goodwill among the countries, treat each other with respect, and if possible see a meaningful glimpse of different lives and cultures.”

Connie Sweeris, a veteran PPD team member who co-hosted the 2010 US Open Table Tennis Championship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband Dell, commented: “One of the goals is to celebrate Ping Pong Diplomacy’s place in history—that it helped to open diplomatic relations. Another goal is to showcase table tennis to America through the exhibition matches.”

Since table tennis is more popular in many other parts of the world than it is in the United States, the veteran players helped answer what can be done to boost the sport’s popularity in the United States. Braithwaite said: “There was a time when the United States was a world power in table tennis, having won two world mixed-doubles championships in 1948 and 1956, world women’s singles championships in 1936 and 1937, and world men’s doubles championships also in the 1930s. But a change occurred in the 1960s when the major table tennis powers in the world saw the need for and took measures to construct a national league system in their respective countries—similar to how the United States has a league system for major sports, such as baseball, basketball, and football. Implementation of the league system resulted in the rest of the world moving ahead of the United States, while US players remained as individuals with limited opportunities. We have the talent, ability, and potential, but we lack the main ingredient for success—structure. To succeed, we must establish a US national or international league.”

Connie Sweeris remarked: “To improve the sport’s popularity, the United States needs a better club system for table tennis players with each club having coaches to help beginners advance. It would also help popularize the sport if we could get table tennis in our school systems where children would compete against other schools in team events. Plus, we need to get higher prize money for our major events.”

Dell Sweeris, a veteran player who accompanied the PRC delegation during its 1972 visit to the United States and is president of the US Table Tennis Association Foundation stressed: “The best way to increase the involvement of Americans is for US tournaments to have compatible prize money with ITTF [International Table Tennis Federation] tournaments. We also need to conduct these events as a presentation to the audience rather than conducting them in a multi-event format. In addition, strong clubs and coaching exist in pockets around the country, but the goal should be to make them available all over the country.”

Because sports such as table tennis have opened the doors for diplomatic relations in the past, perhaps they will continue to improve relations—and give players and enthusiasts a better understanding of the world.

[author] Paula M. Miller is editor of the China Business Review. [/author]

Posted by Christina Nelson