When Table Tennis Solved a Major Diplomatic Issue! [The Ping Pong Diplomacy Story]

Ping-Pong Diplomacy

Table tennis has played a massive role in solving a diplomatic issue termed as the Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Below we get down to the root of what exactly is ping-pong diplomacy and the events which led to table tennis providing a medium to bring two countries closer.

A few decades ago, as table tennis was finding its way to fame throughout the world, it was thrust into the limelight for reasons other than plain sport. They usually say sports and politics should never mix but when there are those very few occasions when sports plays a largely positive role in thawing the ice between nations, regions and people.

The case of ping-pong diplomacy was one such example which led to a massive change in the relations between two countries who had often bordered on factious.

What is the Ping-Pong Diplomacy?

Ping Pong diplomacy is a historical event that happened on April 5, 1971, between two superpowers the People’s Republic of China and the United States.

The prestigious sports event; the World Table Tennis Championships held in Nagoya, Japan. The surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues to visit PRC opened numerous doors of opportunities that supported the two countries to prosper together.

A young American player Glenn Cowan competed against Zhuang Zedong of the PRC. After his return to the United States, one of the American players informed and acknowledged that Chinese people were very much alike people in the states.

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Since 1949, the relation between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America has always been overcast by Cold War Propaganda, economic containment policy, and trade ban.

However, in 1950 both nations encountered each other on the battlefield during the Korean War for the first time in years.

Only if, this confrontation between two superpowers boosted their relation but nothing happens overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day!

On April 6, 1971, for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships, the team accompanying a journalist landed their foot in Beijing.

Hence, became the first American delegation to visit China since 1949. Before this event, China and America shared a destructive relationship. This sports event became a momentous part of the history of both countries.

It took almost two decades for both countries to propose an idea of a bilateral talk with each other which happened in 1971.

This event paved the way and established a foundation which resulted in Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing as the first US president to visit the People’s Republic of China. The landmark event caused an impactful transformation and revived the political relationship between the two countries.


Ping pong diplomacy paved its way to the Olympics. Consequently, table tennis became an official Olympic sport in 1988.

This diplomatic episode made a notable appearance in 1994 films Forrest Gump in which a male protagonist joins the U.S. Army ping pong team and competes against a Chinese team. Therefore, ping pong diplomacy caused the normalization of relations between the two countries.

Consequences of Richard Nixon’s Visit of China

The ripple effects of “Ping-pong Diplomacy” continued the following year as well.

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China which was considered one of the remarkable diplomatic strategies which put an end to years of diplomatic isolation.

Seven days’ visits to the three Chinese cities removed the various roadblocks which predominantly formalized relations between the two countries. In this way, Nixon gained more leverage over relations with the Soviet Union.

By the virtue of this ping-pong diplomacy which leads to a triumphant the U.S.-China relationship resulted in the USA to uplift trade prohibition against China on June 10, 1971.

Zhuang Zedong was the head of Table tennis delegation visited U.S.A immediately two months later Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

The sole purpose of the Chinese delegation’s visit was to foster the political and establish a strategic trade partnership with the United States.

However, this visit lasted around 18 days and which turned out to be an esteemed visit. Even during this visit, Ping Pong played a vital role as a match was conducted between Chinese Players and a house team of the University of Maryland on April 17, 1972

On the other hand, improved relations with the Soviet Union and the PRC are considered to be the best successful diplomatic accomplishments of Nixon’s presidential term. For this reason, ping-pong diplomacy performed a decisive role in US-China diplomatic relations, which were eventually normalized in 1979.

Nixon wrote about his visit:

“Discovered particular delight in prompting me that an exchange of ping-pong teams had initiated a breakthrough in our relations. They seemed to enjoy the method resorted to achieve the result almost as much as the result itself.”

President Richard Nixon had written:

“We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations.”

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The Unified Korean Team in 1991

The world has witnessed one more classic example of Ping Pong Diplomacy. In 1991, Japan was the hosting country of the world table tennis championship which held in Chiba.

This event was yet another conspicuous event in the history of table tennis as the Korean team from both countries i.e. north and south Korea played their first match together after the Korean war.

Ichiro Ogimura, an ITTF President played his part in another form of Ping-Pong diplomacy when he got North and South Korea to compete as a single team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships.

His effort bore fruit after Ogimura made multiple trips to both South Korea and North Korea to convince them to try and play together as Korea, and the side went on to clinch four medals in the competition including a gold.

The Korean team used the Korean Folksong, Arirang, instead of the National Anthem of either country. Also, the Korean team played with a white flag representing the Korean peninsula in blue.

Book: Ping-pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World’ by Nicholas Griffin

Nicholas Griffin who is a Canadian-based philosopher wrote a book on one of the most controversial topics of the 1970s. The book is based on the Ping-Pong diplomacy which was a turning point of American as well as People of Republic China’s history.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy in Pop Culture

There is a reference of Ping-pong Diplomacy made in one of the best films of its time, Forrest Gump. In this movie, Gump, a character played by Tom Hanks, is shown to be a part of the American ping-pong team which takes part in the series of matches that are played against the Chinese team.

Stan Boone

I am the editor of Racket Sports World. I love my tennis, pickleball and most of the other racket sports played around the world and started this blog as my way to help other racquet sports fans even as I learn, explore and improve by connecting with them. Tweet at https://twitter.com/StanBooneTennis.

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