In the early 1970s, the United States and China engaged in a series of ping-pong matches that eventually became a trigger for both nations to come to amicable terms. The event, known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy,” is one of the few instances in world history when a sporting event has been used by two nations to ease their conflict.
After Beijing made its entry into the Korean War in 1950, the U.S. viewed it as an aggressor nation and placed an embargo on the country. About 20 years later, both nations began warming up to each other due to a unique situation in which both parties needed one another. The U.S. wanted to get close to China and use it as leverage in its peace talks with North Vietnam. Meanwhile, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union was increasingly becoming tense, which Beijing chose to counter by getting close to the United States. In 1971, the 31st World Table Tennis Championship held in Nagoya, Japan, acted as a catalyst for “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”
The U.S. team, which was in Nagoya for the championship, got an invitation from the Chinese government to come and visit their country. The team obliged them, and on April 10, 1971, set foot in China together with a few journalists. That week, between April 11 and April 17, the American players engaged in fun matches with several Chinese players, watched a ballet, and toured the Great Wall and Summer Palace. Two months, later in June, the United States lifted the embargo against China.
In February 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China for a 7-day visit. This was the first time that an American president had ever made an official visit to China and also ended almost 25 years of no communication between the two nations. During the visit, the two sides signed the Shanghai Communique according to which the U.S. agreed not to interfere in issues between China and Taiwan and also accepted that the island nation was a part of China. Following Nixon’s visit, China sent a table-tennis delegation to the U.S. in April that year.
Years later, Nixon noted that the Chinese leaders “took particular delight in reminding me that an exchange of ping-pong teams had initiated a breakthrough in our relations. They seemed to enjoy the method used to achieve the result almost as much as the result itself,” according to History. Decades later, the U.S.-China relationship is once again at a low. However, this time it does not seem like a simple game of ping-pong would warm the hearts of the two nations. Because this time, Washington is expecting Beijing to commit to some real changes like open markets, greater freedom of speech, privacy protections, and so on.
China’s top spot
China is the dominant player in ping-pong internationally. This is no surprise given how popular the game is in the country. According to estimates, at least 300 million Chinese play ping-pong occasionally, with around 10 million of them playing the game competitively. The Chinese pick out potential players from a young age and put them through extremely grueling training sessions to make them as good a player as possible.
Chinese ping-pong players are believed to train for at least 7 hours every day. Some players even practice against two people at the same time, which is something you are not likely to see in teams from other nations. While selecting members for the national team, the focus is not on selecting the top-ranking players at the moment, but players who have the potential to get medals in the future.