Ping Pong Diplomacy 2: Table tennis breaks through China’s COVID-related border closure

In 1971, an invitation was extended to the US table tennis team to visit what had been a reclusive and inward-looking China.

This began a major thaw in Cold War relations that saw President Richard Nixon visit a year later to meet China’s then-Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong.

It was ping-pong diplomacy.

There is no suggestion that such a thaw in the currently strained relationship between the two nations is about to happen again. But it’s table tennis that has been welcomed to China as the rest of the world is kept out by closed borders due to the country’s strict COVID-zero policy.

With the exception of table tennis and the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, all other international events – sporting and otherwise – have been postponed or cancelled.

China hosted the World Team Championship final in Chengdu, the first of three tournaments held on Chinese territory last month.(World table tennis: Remy Gros and Li Zhiya)

The Asian Games, the biggest multi-sport event outside the Olympics, and the AFC Asian Cup in football have both fallen victim to China’s lockdown that has stretched far beyond any other country.

So what makes table tennis so special?

“I think it’s mainly because of the history of table tennis in this country,” Steve Dainton, Australia’s chief executive of the International Table Tennis Federation, told The Ticket.

“We have a rich history, it’s called the national ball – the little white ping pong ball that captured the nation for over 50 years.

“It was the first sport to have a world championship in 1961 in Beijing, we were one of the first international federations to recognize the People’s Republic of China.”

Relations are important to China. Medals too.

Another sack of gold is another opportunity to flex those soft power muscles, and there’s been a lot of flexing during October.

International athletes traveled to Chengdu on charter flights for the ITTF World Team Championships, entering a closed-loop system, with added security and volunteers in hazmat suits.

A man boards a plane with a passport as several people in hazmat suits look on
Traveling to China is a complicated process in the age of COVID.(World table tennis: Remy Gros and Li Zhiya)

China beat Germany 3-0 to win the men’s title and beat Japan 3-0 to win the women’s crown.

A round of the WTT professional league was then held in Macau, where Chinese superstars Sun Yingsha and Wang Chuqin won the women’s title and Wang Chuqin respectively.

This weekend, the WTT League Finals are decided in Xinxiang, with the world’s top-ranked competitors invited to split the $1 million prize pool split equally between women and men.

The odds overwhelmingly favor the locals. No wonder the red carpet was rolled out and special waivers were granted.

“[Logistically] it was a roller coaster ride like no other, that’s for sure,” Dainton said from Xinxiang.

“There were many times when we weren’t sure it was going to happen. We saw a lot of other sports canceled or postponed…it was on a scale like we’ve never had before.

“We’re not the biggest sport in many parts of the world…[but] we are a national sport here in China.

“The magnitude of what they have done for us at the World Championships and these other events is beyond our imagination.”

TV ratings bonanza

Dillon Chambers watches a table tennis ball he throws with his hand
No Australian athlete has competed in China since the Winter Olympics.(World table tennis: Remy Gros and Li Zhiya)

The world championships had a cumulative audience of over a billion, while the women’s final had one of the biggest sports audiences of the year – over 53 million in China alone.

“We get record numbers all the time from a viewership perspective…generally people love table tennis,” Dainton said.

“It just shows you the superpower strength they have in terms of table tennis stars.”

One of the greatest of this sport is the Chinese Liu Guoliang. A two-time Olympic champion with seven world championship gold medals and a well-known coach, he is now executive vice president of sport.

Dainton says it was Liu’s status and connections that certainly helped achieve what many thought was impossible during a month that also coincided with the extraordinary security arrangements around the Communist Party of China’s National People’s Congress.

“Actually, I like to think it’s the second round of ping-pong diplomacy. We’d like to see that our sport can help bridge the understanding gap between the international community and the Chinese community.

“I think these few events here are a small step in helping us get there.”

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