BERLIN - In 1971, a game of ping pong famously led to a meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and China's Chairman Mao, and a new era of normalized U.S.-China relations.
This past weekend, in the best traditions of sports diplomacy, Chinese and exiled Tibetan players came together at a women’s seven-aside soccer tournament in Germany. The meeting represented the first recorded encounter between Chinese and dissident Tibetan athletes since the Lhasa uprising of 1959, and the first-ever overseas tour by a Tibetan women’s sports team.
Players from Shanghai Sports University and the Tibet Women’s Soccer program, based in Dehradun, India, met and embraced last Sunday near the site of the former Berlin Wall. This was a historic encounter with significant implications, says Tibetan team manager Cassie Childers.
“It was an amazing moment. Our Tibetan girls ran to meet them and started hugging them," she said. "The Chinese players had this look of shock on their faces. I don’t think they knew a team from Tibet was going to be here. They don’t know anything about what is going on inside Tibet – why our girls are living as refugees in India. The really amazing thing is that they were open to listening to the stories – and now they know.”
Monday marks the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama, figurehead of the Tibetan struggle for autonomy under Chinese rule. There has been no formal contact between Beijing and the exile administration for five years.
By contrast, on the Berlin pitch, Tibetan and Chinese athletes played side by side – an unlikely scenario even if this had been a men’s tournament, suggests Lea Gölnitz of Discover Football, the event organizer.
“A Chinese national team and a men’s team from Tibet meeting would be such a charged situation – it would just be about the Chinese politics of Tibet and everyone’s stance on that," she said. "It shows that in women’s football, at grassroots level, there is more space to wiggle around big political issues. And it will change [things], I assume, at least for all the people that are here.”
The competition took place on the sidelines of a women’s soccer conference titled Beyond Borders, attended by players from 27 countries including Afghanistan and Uganda. For the Afghan delegate, the tournament was a first opportunity to play football under open skies and in front of a mixed-gender crowd.
With restrictions on women participating in sport still common around the world, dialogue and training sessions ran throughout the event, jointly sponsored by the German Foreign Ministry. The conference included a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Tibetan player Yangdan Lhamo said her team took a Tibetan flag with them to a photo shoot at the German parliament to show that Tibet is still a global issue.
VOA first reported on Tibetan women’s soccer two years ago and the gender discrimination still prevalent among sports administrators in the conservative exile community. Indeed, Childers recently severed ties to the Tibetan National Sports Association, after its executive chairman expressed doubts about the suitability of a women’s soccer team touring overseas.
The record books will show that, Sunday night, a team comprising three Tibetans and four Chinese won 3-1 in the final, historic match of a tournament held in a city whose name is a byword for reconciliation.