A table tennis tournament being held June 10-12 is commemorating the historic ping-pong diplomacy that helped open relations between the United States and China in the 1970s. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the event at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, will feature a rematch of some of the original players.
In April, 1971, the U.S. national table tennis team was playing at the world championship in Nagoya, Japan, when Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai invited the team to China. Four days later, nine players, team officials and two spouses became the first official American visitors to China since 1949, the year the Communists came to power.
In February, 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China. Seven years later, the United States and the People's Republic of China opened diplomatic relations.
These events are being remembered at the Nixon Library, which this week is hosting ping-pong demonstrations, instructional clinics for players and games between current U.S. and Chinese table tennis stars.
Richard Nixon Library Executive Director John H. Taylor says Mr. Nixon and Zhou En-lai both had practical goals, while both also hoped for better relations between the two nations.
"China pragmatically was looking to deepen its economic and cultural ties with the West, but more emotionally they were looking for acceptance after having been ostracized for a generation or more by the Americans," he explained.
He says the American president also had a strategic goal, hoping to counteract the influence of the Soviet Union with closer ties to China. But he says Nixon's motives were tinged with idealism, and that he hoped to end the isolation of the Chinese people.
The breakthrough began with a personal contact between two athletes. An American player missed his bus at the world table tennis championship in Japan. A Chinese player suggested he ride on the bus of the Chinese team. The two players exchanged gifts, and political leaders seized on the idea of a sports exchange.
At one level, the games were merely a symbol of more important diplomacy taking place behind the scenes. Yet Olympic historian David Wallechinsky says it is not unusual for athletes to bridge political barriers. He recalls another incident in 1952, when the Soviet Union took part in its first Olympic games. It was at the height of the Cold War, when the great American pole vaulter Bob Richards led a group of American athletes to visit their Soviet counterparts.
Wallechinsky says it helped to break the ice and change the mood at the games.
"One advantage that athletes have over diplomats is that they do not have to take a stand," he noted. "They can act as individuals. They can represent themselves and make that effort to become friends. One of the great parts of the Olympics, for example, is to go into the Olympic Village and see these athletes from 200 countries just being friendly with each other."
Often, he says, they are playing ping-pong or video games.
John Taylor says the California tournament looks back to 1971 and its famous ping-pong diplomacy, but also looks forward to the Olympics, which will be held in Beijing in August.
"We wanted to give our hometown audience in southern California a preview of some of the excitement that attends the Olympics, since the vast majority of us will not be able to journey to Beijing," he added. "But it is also part of the mission of the Nixon Foundation and the Nixon Library to remind people about a great event in the past, as opportunities for reconciliation will present themselves as they often do in the future."
An official with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, one of the sponsors of the event, says the rematch will remind the Chinese of the importance of relationships they now take for granted.
The highlight of the three-day event is a rematch of players from the original teams. In 1971, the Chinese players were considered the best in the world, and in several days of matches, they trounced the Americans. American George Braithwaite and Chinese star Liang Geliang face off again Thursday.
Braithwaite says he was suspicious in 1971 when he won two out of three matches against Liang, one of world's top players, as they squared off in an auditorium with 18,000 spectators. The Americans soon realized the Chinese players were letting them win some games. Braithwaite, 69, says he has been practicing hard for the rematch.