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The Evolving Role of Sports Diplomacy

Stephen Orlins, President, National Committee on US-China Relations
March 2, 2012
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As we reflect on the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s trip to China, and Secretary Kissinger’s secret trip a year earlier that paved the way for this diplomatic breakthrough, it is easy to overlook the importance of exchanges between the United States and China that took place outside the political arena as our two countries endeavored to reestablish relations. Such events have historically served as useful instruments for policy-makers seeking to repair, rebuild, or initiate bilateral relations. In the case of the US-China relationship, the role of sport and sporting exchanges have served as a particularly effective and valuable tool to promote a more peaceful and prosperous bilateral relationship. There are few better examples of the use of sporting diplomacy than the case of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” that began four decades ago.

Forty years ago the United States was entrenched in the Vietnam War, and China was entering the Cultural Revolution. Despite America’s public denunciation of China as “Red China” and China’s denunciation of Americans as “decadent imperialists,” Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou and President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger had decided that the Soviet Union posed a common threat. The years of no diplomatic relations had to be ended. But 22 years of silence and hostility had created deep mutual mistrust. This was true for officials and for ordinary people in both countries, who needed to be convinced that the resumption of relations was a good thing.

What made this happen? In large part it was a sport, Ping Pong, that changed attitudes on both sides. It was Ping Pong that created the first person-to-person ties between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. And because dramatic political events were taking place at the same time, that period is now referred to as the time of “ping-pong diplomacy.”

This happened in 1971. At that point, China had been cut off from diplomatic relations with most of the rest of the world for over two decades. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the U.S. ping-pong team, which had been visiting Japan for the World Table Tennis Championship, was invited to visit China. The story goes that the invitation came about because an American player happened to get on a bus with some Chinese players. They started talking. You can probably imagine the conversation and how at some point someone said, “Well, you should come over and we can have a match.” That’s the story; records now show that in actuality, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou had been discussing such a possibility for a while.

It’s hard to imagine now just how dramatic and exciting this was. All kinds of formal permissions were required, but the U.S. team’s visit took place only a few days later.

Time magazine called it the “ping heard round the world.” There was a huge amount of press coverage. Over the course of that tour, the young American and Chinese table tennis players, many of them teenagers, changed the way ordinary people in their countries thought about so-called Red or Communist China and the decadent, imperialistic United States.

And there were major political results, too. The “people-to-people” exchange provided President Nixon with a backdrop for the major diplomatic shift that was in progress. During the U.S. team’s visit to China, the United States announced the end of a twenty-year trade embargo against the People’s Republic. In July 1971, Nixon announced that Secretary Kissinger had secretly visited China and then he himself went to Beijing from 20 to 27 February 1972, the first visit by an American president to China.

The American Ping Pong team reciprocated by inviting their Chinese opponents to visit the United States, which they did in April, 1972. This is when the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) stepped in to organize what became a huge media event, broadcast by every news outlet and publicized in magazines as diverse as Life and Seventeen. The two teams traveled on one charter plane and another plane was needed for all the reporters and camera people.

The Chinese players completely dominated the matches, but the U.S. players managed to win surprise victories especially when the tour landed in their hometowns. From these events came the belief that sport would play a unique role in the U.S.-China relationship.

Throughout the 1980s, there were many athletic exchanges that introduced Chinese athletes to huge U.S. audiences across the country, all in the spirit of “friendship first, competition second – youyi di yi, bisai di er.” And sports would continue to play a role in China’s diplomatic relations with other countries after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) re-instated China in 1979.

Over the next two decades, the National Committee continued our people-to-people sports diplomacy, sending or hosting teams in almost every organized sport. We sent tennis players, swimmers, divers, track and field stars, and basketball players to China and hosted soccer and volleyball teams as, well as acrobatic and martial arts tours in the United States – to name just a few of the dozens of athletic exchanges the Committee ran in the 1970s.

In the last 20 years, nothing has influenced American perceptions of China more than the 2008 Olympics. All Americans marveled at the opening ceremony and the extraordinary number of gold medals that China won. And for me, someone who works on the political side of U.S.-China relations, there were certain images that I won’t forget, images I think still mean something to Americans.

The first was Yao Ming walking at the front of the Chinese team holding the hand of a 9-year-old survivor of the Sichuan earthquake. The human emotion conveyed through that image was unforgettable. The second, totally unplanned, was Liu Xiang having to succumb to his injury and his coach coming to tears describing his hard work and disappointment. Americans thought, “I feel his pain. That’s just how I would feel.”

So at a time when there is too much fear of China’s rise, in part because China can be so different from America, this one image conveyed, better than thousands of words ever could, that we are all the same.

During this crucial time for the world’s most important bilateral relationship, it is important for China and the United States to take advantage of the opportunities international sports exchanges present. Today’s athletes have the ability to lay the foundation for peace and stability in Asia and the rest of the world, celebrate the unique role of sport in U.S.-China relations, and amplify the “ping heard round the world.”

Stephen Orlins is the President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. This article was adapted from a speech Mr. Orlins delivered at the China Sports Leadership Forum in Beijing, December 13, 2010.

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