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Once a tool for diplomacy, table tennis now viewed by China as so much more

For Beijing, “demonstrating excellence at the [Olympics] showcases how far China has come as a nation. ... It is a kind of signal of its improved international status,” one expert said.
Image: Rong Guotuan and Ma Long
Rong Guotuan and Ma Long.Getty Images; NBC News

Fifty years ago, the simple game of table tennis helped mend the frayed relationship between China and the U.S.

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

But as China has turned its gaze increasingly outward and established itself as a true world economic power, table tennis is getting some serious competition — from other sports. 

After the 1949 Communist Revolution, “the reason table tennis became so popular in China [is] simple. It was a top-down decision — from the VERY top, since [it] was a game played by both Mao [Zedong] and Zhou Enlai,” Nicholas 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 displayed 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 all but broke. How to climb the first rung of the ladder?”

Table tennis turned out to be the answer for reasons beyond the personal tastes of party leaders: It was cheap, requiring little equipment beyond paddles, balls, a flat surface and little space. People of all ages, abilities and backgrounds could play. And few nations at the time were invested in promoting or perfecting the game — which, incidentally, was developed in England in the early 1900s. 

While mainland China had a spotty history of participating in the Olympics — which did not include table tennis until 1988 — the nation steadily moved toward international domination of the sport under Communist rule.

“Table tennis was a key tool in China’s sporting 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, a historian and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong, said in an email. 

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

The spotlight moment for ping pong diplomacy came at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. A young American player, Glenn Cowan, caught a ride on a shuttle carrying the Chinese team. Most athletes shunned 19-year-old Cowan, but the champion Chinese player Zhuang Zedong not only greeted Cowan, but gave him a gift. After seeing photos of the interaction, Mao — who was interested in improving relations with the U.S. amid difficulties with the Soviet Union — invited the U.S. team to China. 

The entire 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 thawed U.S.-China relations.

Since then, those relations have had their ups and downs. At the same time, China’s interest in competing on the international stage — in many areas and many sports — has expanded dramatically. 

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

China’s taste for — and acceptance of — sports is expanding as it seeks to become more global. In recent years, President Xi Jinping has said he wants the nation to become a world power in soccer, although that dream hasn’t come true quite yet. The International Table Tennis Foundation says television viewership of competitive ping pong remains high in China — but in 2018, it was only the fourth most-watched sport, behind soccer, basketball and volleyball. 

And as of the middle of this week, China was leading the Olympic gold medal tally — a bragging point ahead of its scheduled hosting of the 2022 games in Beijing, and arguably a result of a state-sanctioned system of generating winning athletes that seems to take a page from the Soviet playbook.

While China continues to bring home gold in ping pong, younger generations are looking beyond the ubiquitous sport (and diplomacy tool). 

“These days, table tennis in China is definitely your grandparents’ sport. [But] China still dominates," Griffin said. "Their table tennis program is excellent, and few other countries even bother investing to a similar extent. That assures a clutch of gold Olympic medals — a relatively cost-effective way to get international acclaim [at] the medal table."

As for the future, “Give it another decade, and once it’s beyond all doubt that China’s economy dwarfs all others, then maybe the investment in sports like soccer and basketball will rise,” he said. “It’s what their youth will expect. And how China manages those expectations will be fascinating.”