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Pingpong Diplomacy: Celebrating 40 Years

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 02 December 2011
Li Fu-Yeng and Fuarnado Roberts playing table tennis in large arena (AP Images)

China’s Li Fu-Yeng, left, returns ball to U.S. player Fuarnado Roberts during a good will table tennis match at Nassau Coliseum in New York in 1972.

Washington — Champion U.S. table tennis players will visit China in December for the 40th anniversary of “pingpong diplomacy,” the breakthrough in U.S.-China relations that started with an invitation from China to the U.S. table tennis team.

U.S. men’s national champion Timothy Wang, 20, will be part of the 15-person delegation, along with some members of the 1971 team whose trip to China paved the way for a visit by President Richard Nixon the following year. They will go to Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Changshu December 7–15.

“It's a great opportunity for me to be able to play with some of the best players in the world,” said Wang, who will play exhibition matches against Wang Liqin, ranked the world’s sixth-best male player by the International Table Tennis Federation. “I’d like U.S. players to go to China more often to train and raise their level,” he said.

Like Wang, who was born in Texas, most players on the U.S. national and junior teams are children of Chinese immigrants, according to USA Table Tennis. Wang speaks Mandarin and has trained with Chinese coaches in the United States and China.

In addition to the competition, Wang looks forward to visiting China with pingpong diplomacy veterans. “Table tennis brought the U.S. and China together,” he said. “Among athletes, I think, everybody is more open to being friends with everybody.”

Veteran player Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost agrees. “In sports, we have a common language that transcends national boundaries and cultural differences,” she said.

In 1971, Hoarfrost was 15 when she traveled to China with the U.S. team. The team had been playing in the World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, when the Chinese invited the team for an all-expense-paid tour and exhibition matches.

“We were the first group of Americans to go to China since before the Cultural Revolution, and we knew this was big news,” Hoarfrost said. The trip’s full significance struck them as they were leaving China. Newspapers carried photos of Hoarfrost shaking hands with Premier Zhou Enlai and “media attention reached an insane level.”

SPORTSMANSHIP AS DIPLOMACY

Connie Sweeris, then 23 and the reigning U.S. champion, was nervous about traveling to China in 1971 because it was “the unknown” and a communist country. However, the Americans were warmly received by Chinese officials, citizens and athletes.

“They were very friendly, and the motto was ‘Friendship First, Competition Second,’” she said.

She admits that the Chinese players, the best table tennis players in the world, demonstrated host-country sportsmanship and let the Americans win some. “They weren’t trying to stomp us in the ground, which they probably could have,” she said.

Following Nixon’s visit to China, the Chinese team came to the United States. Dell Sweeris, Connie’s husband, was the only American to defeat a Chinese competitor. (Although a member of the U.S. team, Dell had stayed home during the trip to Japan and China.) He recalled that his opponent, Liang Geliang, “allowed me to play my best game in order to be able to beat him.” The American audience was awestruck by the speed and agility of the match, he said. “They had never seen anything like that before.”

He will play Liang in a doubles “friendship” match in China.

The American delegation also includes John Tannehill, a 1971 veteran, and two younger players still competing: Yiyong Fan, a member of the U.S. National Team, and Lily Yip, coach of the U.S. National Junior Team.

Wang flies back to the United States a day earlier than the others to defend his title at the U.S. National Championships. He hopes to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

Those challenges don’t eclipse the trip to China, however. He has traveled there four times previously for visits and training. “My dad is from China, so China is kind of like my second home,” he said.

But this is different. He expects “a really great trip” this time, as a sports diplomat.

The visit is part of the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange. It is being organized by the U.S. and China table tennis associations, with assistance from the U.S. Embassy Beijing and the State Department’s SportsUnited program. Earlier this year, a Chinese delegation visited the United States as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of pingpong diplomacy.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Timothy Wang playing table tennis (Courtesy of USATT)

Timothy Wang at the North American Cup in Toronto in April 2011