Once a tool of diplomacy, table tennis is now seen by China as much more

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Fifty years ago, the simple game of table tennis helped mend frayed China-US relations

Today, the game that gave birth to “ping-pong diplomacy” is still played by millions of people in China – and the medals won. at the Tokyo Olympics and in other international championships remain a source of national pride.

But as China has turned its gaze more and more outward and established itself as a true global economic power, table tennis faces serious competition – from other sports. .

After the Communist Revolution of 1949, “the reason table tennis became so popular in China [is] Easy. It was a top down decision – from the VERY high up, since [it] was a game played by both Mao [Zedong] and Zhou Enlai, ” Nicolas griffin, author of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World,” said in an email.

“After the formation of the People’s Republic, they realized that most nations show their strengths to other nations through sport. What better way to show the health of the nation than through the health of its citizens? Griffin said. “But, frankly, China was almost broke. How to climb the first rung of the ladder?

Table tennis turned out to be the answer for reasons beyond the personal taste of the group leaders: it was cheap, requiring little equipment beyond paddles, balls, a flat surface, and little power. space. People of all ages, abilities and backgrounds could play. And few nations at the time had invested in promoting or perfecting the game – which, by the way, was developed in England In the early 1900s.

While mainland China had an unequal history to participate in the Olympics – which did not include table tennis until 1988 – the nation gradually moved towards the international domination of sport under the communist regime.

“Table tennis has been a key tool in Chinese sports diplomacy and the first sport in which China produced a world champion: Rong Guotuan, who won gold at the 1959 world championships in West Germany ”, Pete millwood, historian and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hong Kong, said in an email.

Zhuang Zedong, right, shakes hands with American table tennis player Glenn Cowan during a visit to the United States in circa April 1972.Xu Bihua / Xinhua News Agency via AP file

The highlight of ping-pong diplomacy came at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. A young American player, Glenn Cowan, took a ride in a shuttle carrying the Chinese team. Most of the athletes avoided Cowan, 19, but Chinese champion Zhuang Zedong not only greeted Cowan but gave him a gift. After seeing photos of the interaction, Mao – who wanted to improve relations with the United States in the midst of difficulties with the Soviet Union – invited the US team to China.

The whole backstory of the moment is more complicated, but less than a year later then President Richard Nixon visited china, marking the advent of a new era of thawing US-China relations.

Since then, these relationships have had their ups and downs. At the same time, China’s interest in competing on the international stage – in many fields and many sports – has grown dramatically.

“I think that for the Party, showing excellence in [Olympics] shows how far China has come as a nation and the kind of achievements it has made. From this point of view, it is a kind of signal of its improved international status ”, Tyler jostsaid an assistant professor of political science at Brown University.

China’s taste and acceptance for sport is growing as it seeks to go global. In recent years, President Xi Jinping said he wants the nation to become a world football power, although that dream has not come true quite still. The International Table Tennis Foundation says competitive ping-pong TV audiences remain high in China – but in 2018, it was only the fourth most watched sport, behind football, basketball and volleyball.

And since the middle of this week, China was leading the tally of Olympic gold medals – a point of bragging about his scheduled accommodation of the 2022 games in Beijing, and arguably the result of a state-sanctioned system for generating winning athletes that appears to be taking a page from the Soviet playbook.

As China continues to bring gold from ping-pong, the younger generations look beyond the omnipresent sport (and tool of diplomacy).

“Table tennis in China is definitely the sport of your grandparents these days. [But] China still dominates, “Griffin said.” Their table tennis program is excellent, and few other countries even bother to invest to a similar extent. This guarantees a handful of Olympic gold medals – a relatively cost-effective way to achieve international fame [at] the medal table. “

As for the future, “Give it another decade, and once it is beyond doubt that the Chinese economy outperforms all others, then maybe investment in sports like football and basketball will increase, ”he said. “This is what their young people will expect. And how China manages these expectations will be fascinating. “


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