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Great Moments in Sports Diplomacy #1: Reaching Across the Net...

These days China-US relations are generally better - South China Sea disputes notwithstanding - than they were in the early 1970's. Then Mao's influence tended to negate friendships with the capitalist superpower, while Nixon's reign in the US was still cowering under the pressure from the omnipotent anti-Red lobby, led by Senator Joe McCarthy.

That relations are relatively benign between the world's two undisputed super-powers has various forces to thank, trade and geo-politics in particular.

But, what occurred in 1971 during a table tennis tournament in Japan was generally considered the first sign of a thaw between the two behemoths. And, it had little to do with political wrangling and more to do with two mutually respectful athletes knocking down the largely artificial barriers that had been placed between them.

It is generally considered that Glenn Cowan, a champion US table tennis player, had missed his team bus after a late training session during the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan in April 1971. Members of the Chinese team, whose bus was just departing, waved the American over and offered him a lift.

Leading Chinese player Zhuang Zedong was one of the players Cowan joined up with and, as they and other Chinese players were communicating as best they could with Cowan, Zhuang went to his bag on the bus and took out a silk print he was carrying with him. The print was a traditional Chinese work from the player's home region (see picture above).

The chance meeting led to a team of US players and officials being invited to China. A few days after the above incident, Chinese and US players competed in friendly games across the country.

The tour led to US President Nixon visiting China on an official state visit in February 1972. This was one of the first formal visits to Maoist China by a Western leader and the first time by a US President. Prior to this visit, the US and China had been incommunicado for 25 years.

In April 1972, a Chinese table tennis team, led by Zhuang Zedong, visited the US.

That such a long, wintery relationship could be so warmed and re-animated by two athletes is testimony to the power of sport to embody humanity's better traits. The spontaneity of the moment and the authenticity of the two central figures, Cowan and Zhuang, only enhanced the significance of a chance meeting brought about by simple respect and sportsmanship.

The world might not have been the same without it.


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