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The Power of Ping Pong Diplomacy

One of the appeals of sport is that it transcends all boundaries and unites people regardless of race, language and religion. It is also a universal phenomenon that unlocks talents, changes attitudes and empowers us to do even greater things.

On 10th April 50 years ago, the role of table tennis took on a historical significance that will forever be etched in the minds of many. Touted as one of the greatest diplomatic breakthroughs of that era, table tennis played a pivotal role in re-establishing ties between China and the United States, in what is now famously known as Ping Pong Diplomacy.

A chance meeting at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan took place between China's Zhuang Zedong and American teenager Glenn Cowan, who had to board the Chinese team's bus after missing his own.

The shaggy-haired American was initially greeted with silence, but Zhuang, the team's greatest player, stepped forward to shake Cowan's hand and spoke to him through an interpreter. He presented the teenager with a gift: a silk-screen picture of China's Huangshan mountains. Cowan, a self-described hippie, returned the gesture the following day by giving Zhuang a t-shirt emblazoned with a peace symbol and the Beatles' lyric "Let It Be." Photographers caught the incident on film, and the unexpected goodwill between the U.S. and Chinese teams soon became the talk of the tournament.

Photos of Zhuang and Cowan were widely publicised after their fateful encounter. Before long, Chinese leader Mao Zedong invited the American team to visit and play friendly matches in China. The following year, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, ultimately leading to the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1979.

This historical moment brought a new perspective to table tennis, where it has continued to remind us of the power of the sport and its ability to unify.

The dawn of Ping Pong Diplomacy has successfully created a model of promoting exchanges and reconciliation between countries through friendship between their people. Over the years, frequent trade, culture, education and people-to-people exchanges have been forged through a community across the Pacific, driving only win-win cooperation and mutual benefits for all.

A more recent example was at the Liebherr 2018 ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships in Halmstad, Sweden where North and South Korea refused to play against each other. With support from the ITTF and ITTF Foundation for a unified team initiative, both teams were able to play together as one in several tournaments, leading to the result of winning silver at the 2018 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals.

In today's challenging global environment, Ping Pong Diplomacy holds a greater resonance. Whilst some athletes thrill with moments of brilliance and can inspire a whole new generation to play like them, table tennis as a sport will leave behind a legacy where beyond the venue, it has shaped the world in more ways than one.