One day, someone will write the history of the strange relationship between ping pong and diplomacy.
The 1970s was an age of polar frigidity. The so-called ‘midnight’ of the century where everything was seen through the eyes of the cold war, with the haunting prospect of a nuclear winter. Some retiring diplomats said the period was ‘…like riding a bomb.’
At that time, it was axiomatic that the US and China were natural enemies. And as history would have it, we’re heading that way again in Eastern Europe. Maybe there’s a small clue from the past to help us to run around this park a second time?
Back then, this was the 70s remember, there were significant events flashing up everywhere. In the squares of Prague, the universities of Mexico, the hippy communes of the United States, marches for the third world. There was a generative, universal struggle to face-off power structures with co-operation.
In the end, the political chill was warmed by the low-key, almost imperceptible glow of the sport of table tennis. We rarely come across a moment in history where sport re-sets the clock, but in 1972, that’s exactly what the game did for international relations.
The men who made China and America talk for the first time in over 20 years, were two stars of the sport, Glen Cowan and Zhuang Zedong. They had been lucky. As a result of an early encounter and friendship, that began during the 1971 World Championships in Japan, player exchanges, organised by these two peace-loving men, led to a thaw in relations that set up President Nixon’s historical visit to China in 1972.
Magically, table tennis had enriched the eloquence of politics by deepening its pathos, adding the ingredient of sport where everything had been terse handshakes and rigid smiles. Table tennis had helped to penetrate and deliver a new generation of détente. Private animosities seemed to dissolve like sugar in water, with the metronomic sound of bat on ball.
Thus, the term ‘ping pong diplomacy’ was coined in the popular memory of most politicians, propelling an alliance of interest where none had existed.
In a curious way, the sport has continued to have an effect on politics and economics. With sporting activities surrounding you, compromise is somehow possible. It helps to stimulate a ‘moment.’ In 1972, there was a seismic shift in the odds. Instead of something cataclysmic happening, this species of ape-like creatures, living on a marginal planet, with problematic teeth and vulnerable, frontal lobes, could once again get on with the business of living and trading.
You could rewind history and still not believe it happened.
The world in the twenty-first century could do a lot worse than to borrow from this divine blip in time. Can we concoct the alchemy again? Dare to reanimate the moment? Well, why not, if we can match the moment to an underlying will to at least try.
Maybe it’s time to re-learn the lessons of ping pong diplomacy?
Is it really such a crazy idea? Does anybody have a better one? What have we got to lose? Reconciliation always seems impossible, until it happens.
Imagine. What could be better than a one-off international showcase event designed at the same time to spur opportunities for some serious discussions. Take the risk of looking stupid on a ping pong table. No protocols, just an event for the fun of it. Proving at basement level that you have a sense of play and humour.
Politics and trade can be brutal. They’re the most complicated behaviours on earth in many ways. There’s dysfunction baked in. For one, trading suggests a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser,’ when in truth, good trading should be all about spreading benefits.
This is the delicate space where such an event could make all the difference.
If table tennis is about possibilities, so is negotiation. There are a hundred things that will naturally happen in a negotiation and a hundred things that won’t. Table tennis could test possibilities and breakthroughs, through playful discussions over a hot game between one foreign minister and another. There’s no bright spot analysis on the outcome, no betting on who wins or loses – but if you’re just looking to build a consensus, everyone’s a winner in the end. If any one party betrays even the smallest crack of a smile…well, you take my point. The thawing has begun.
Let’s distil the elixir of ping pong diplomacy once again. Just by placing two bats and a ball in the hands of two antagonists, is the best way of saying, ‘just get along.’
What was it exactly that the warring parties uncovered back in the 1970s? The yearning for change and the underlying need to get along. At least that hasn’t gone away. It’s what we all have in common, whichever side of the ping pong table you’re on. It’s true, ping pong diplomacy can lead to important moments of intense dialogue because plainly put, everyone’s heads have been screwed on properly.
When the future looks so vast and possible, catastrophe can so easily cut in. The dangers of war, explicit today in the Donbas region, economics, false recoveries, hem us behind our borders and today, countries are once again displaying their tribal bumper-stickers.
I believe the ping pong effect can still create a sparkle in the eye. A fizz in the brain. If table tennis cleaned up the legacy of the cold war, why can’t it do it again in 2022? Maybe it’s time for another game of table tennis?
Often penning his work under the title ‘Significant Void,’ Christopher Templeton creates screenplays and social media content focusing on relatable stories. He incubates ideas, harnesses the power of activism and then matches his script output to a complimentary range of channels in education, film and technology.
He has a long list of documentary, radio, film and published credits and within the last year alone has produced documentary scripts on data privacy and climate change; the first reality TV mental health series; teacher toolkits on the subject of war and migration for US Schools; YouTube Channel content for influencers with 1m+ subscribers – all interconnected with the purpose of driving debate and disrupting the status quo.
What are your thoughts? You can share your reflections with Christopher and fellow members in the comments below.