How the “Ping” Was Heard Round the World

By Pelle Koppen

Pho­to cred­it: Ingo Joseph on Pexels

Dur­ing the spring of 1971, 19-year-old Amer­i­can table ten­nis play­er, Glenn Cow­an, wrapped up his train­ing ses­sion in Nagoya (Japan) in order to pre­pare for the 31st World Table Ten­nis Cham­pi­onship about to take place lat­er that week. He had been con­cen­trat­ing on per­fect­ing his game for hours before he left the build­ing. To his great sur­prise, Cow­an encoun­tered an almost emp­ty park­ing lot. His team bus had left with­out him. But when the Chi­nese play­ers, who were about to leave as well, saw a young Amer­i­can who looked lost, they motioned to him to hop on their team bus. Dur­ing the short bus ride, Glenn was approached by the Chi­nese star play­er Zhuang Zedong. Against instruc­tions to not seek con­tact with the Amer­i­can play­ers, Zhuang intro­duced him­self to Cow­an and pre­sent­ed him with a gift – a silk-screen por­trait of a Chi­nese moun­tain range. The next day, this friend­ly ges­ture was repaid in kind when Glenn gave Zhuang one of his per­son­al t‑shirts which had a peace sym­bol and the Bea­t­les’ lyrics for “Let It Be” on it. These small, spon­ta­neous acts of human kind­ness trig­gered a series of events with great polit­i­cal consequences. 

The ear­ly 1970s saw the restora­tion of the Sino-Amer­i­can rela­tions and marked the start of the so-called Ping-Pong diplo­ma­cy. Pri­or to that, for almost two decades, the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na and the Unit­ed States had no offi­cial diplo­mat­ic or eco­nom­ic rela­tions what­so­ev­er. After the new­ly found­ed Chi­nese Repub­lic had inter­vened in the Kore­an War (1950–54), the rela­tion­ship between the two coun­tries had come to an all-time low. How­ev­er, “times were a changin’.” The once strong alliance between Chi­na and the USSR was crum­bling. At the same time, due to the long, bloody con­flict in Viet­nam, the Unit­ed States def­i­nite­ly need­ed some diplo­mat­ic suc­cess in Asia. As a result of the chang­ing cir­cum­stances, both Chair­man Mao and Pres­i­dent Nixon had unof­fi­cial­ly shown the inten­tion to improve the trou­bled rela­tion­ship. The only ques­tion was: How? So when the news about the spon­ta­neous inter­ac­tion between two ath­letes spread, both Chi­na and the U.S. imme­di­ate­ly seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Mao invit­ed the Amer­i­can table ten­nis team to vis­it Chi­na once the World Cham­pi­onships were con­clud­ed – an invi­ta­tion the Amer­i­cans glad­ly accepted.

The table ten­nis team was met with high­est regards, and even Chi­nese Pre­mier Zhou Enlai grant­ed them an audi­ence. As the first Amer­i­can del­e­ga­tion to set foot on Chi­nese soil in over 20 years, the team mem­bers felt like diplo­mats rather than ath­letes. West­ern news media accom­pa­nied the team and used the oppor­tu­ni­ty to report about what was going on behind the Bam­boo Cur­tain. The vis­it turned out to be a huge suc­cess. Time Mag­a­zine described the jour­ney as “the ping heard round the world.” A year lat­er, Pres­i­dent Nixon invit­ed the Chi­nese table ten­nis team to go on a tour through­out the Unit­ed States. Due to the per­son­al and polit­i­cal suc­cess of both trips, new back chan­nel com­mu­ni­ca­tion lines were estab­lished between the two gov­ern­ments which proved to be very effec­tive in strength­en­ing Sino-Amer­i­can rela­tions. These rela­tions would then pave the way for the his­toric Nixon vis­it to Bei­jing in 1972. “The lit­tle ball moved the big ball,” Chair­man Mao would lat­er say.

pho­to cred­it: Charles Delu­vio on Unsplash

In a few weeks, the world again will see how sports events can – at times – offer an oppor­tu­ni­ty for polit­i­cal rela­tions to improve: The Win­ter Olympics in Pyeongchang (South Korea) are being used to revi­tal­ize the rusty diplo­mat­ic rela­tions between the two Kore­as. Dur­ing the past months, ten­sions between North and South Korea have come to a boil­ing point over North Korea’s nuclear pro­gram. Now the upcom­ing Win­ter Olympics brought the two coun­tries back to the nego­ti­a­tion table for the first time in years. The two Kore­as also reached oth­er impor­tant diplo­mat­ic break­throughs, such as the re-estab­lish­ment of a mil­i­tary hot­line, which hadn’t been in oper­a­tion since the begin­ning of 2016.

Could this be the start of some­thing called ‘the ice-skat­ing diplomacy?’

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Pelle Kop­pen is a 22-year-old his­to­ry stu­dent from Ams­ter­dam who is cur­rent­ly on an exchange pro­gram at the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­sität zu Berlin. He is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in mod­ern his­to­ry, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and all (not nec­es­sar­i­ly Amer­i­can) sports.