Because of the anti-communist policy in the United States and the fact that the People’s Republic of China was a communist state, the two countries weren’t friendly prior to 1971. But that changed when China put its sports diplomacy into practice.
“Friendship First, Competition Second” had already led Chinese athlete Zhuang Zedong and his fellow players to extend help to Glenn Cowan, a stranded American player who’d missed his bus at a tournament in Japan in 1971. Though the relationships between their countries was strained, Zedong approached Cowan and gave him a portrait of Huangshan, a gorgeous mountain range in eastern China. Cowan was distressed that he didn’t have a gift to give in return; the only thing he had in his pocket was a comb. “I can’t give you a comb,” he said, embarrassed. (Later, he was able to return Zedong’s gift: a red, white, and blue t-shirt adorned with a peace sign and a Beatles lyric.)
When the Chairman himself read about this encounter, he decided that the diplomacy begun by the politically savvy athlete should be extended to the entire American team. And so on this day in history in 1971, fifteen Americans visited China. Their trip was only a week long, but it paved the way for more friendly relations between the two countries. While they were there, the Americans visited the Great Wall, attended a ballet, and, of course, played the sport that had brought them together: ping pong.
|Table Tennis: bringing countries together.|
China and Singapore fighting for victory in Beijing in 2008.
picture by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images