AFTERTHOUGHTS • Ping Pong Diplomacy 2.0

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Ah, those traditional trappings of Thanksgiving: food, family and football.

This year at the Plunkett house, we checked off every box–almost.  Food and family were in great supply, but this year, the television was tuned to table tennis.

Ping pong? On Thanksgiving? Are you kidding me?

Although we did take some tube time to watch the beloved Chicago Bears–my brother-in-law’s beloved Bears, not mine–eke out a last-second win over the winless Lions, the rest of the time, the television was on YouTube where table tennis was making history.

For the first time–ever–the World Table Tennis Championships are being played on U.S. soil, from Nov. 23-29 in Houston.  Played every other year since 1926, the world championships have never been in the United States, so while the rest of the country is basking in football, Houston is making history in table tennis.

As the tournament has unfolded, history was also made on the tables.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of what has become affectionately known as “ping pong diplomacy” an exhibition match between U.S. and Chinese table tennis players in April 1971 that helped thaw a frosty relationship between the two countries that had no diplomatic ties since the 1949 Chinese revolution.  Ping pong diplomacy began when a member of the U.S. table tennis team, playing at the 1971 world championship in Nagoya, Japan, got on the wrong bus.  U.S. ping pong player Glenn Cowan missed his team’s bus following practice and boarded the Chinese team’s bus and became friends with Zhuang Zedong, which eventually resulted in a invitation for the U.S. team to play in China.

Since the 1960s, to say China has dominated the sport of table tennis would be a terrific understatement.  Chinese players have won 17 of the past 21 men’s singles world championships, and 20 of the past 21 women’s singles world titles.

At this very moment, the top three rated men in the world are from China, as are five of the top nine.  In women’s singles, seven of the top ten players in the world are from China.

That’s part of what made the events in Houston last week so dramatic.  In honor of the 50th anniversary of ping pong diplomacy, the top U.S. male, Kanak Jha, who is ranked 31st in the world, teamed up with world number four female Wang Manyu from China in the mixed doubles field.  Similarly, the top U.S. female, Lily Zhang, ranked 35th in the world, teamed with China’s Lin Gaoyuan, ranked number seven in the world.

Jha, 21 and from California, is by far and away the best U.S. male, winning three straight national championships and earning a spot on a professional team in the German Bundesliga. Zhang, 25 and also from California, has won five national titles and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2020 women’s world cup.

Athletes from both the U.S. and China made a sacrifice by playing together for ping pong diplomacy 2.0.  All four are gave up the chance to compete with their teammates in the world championship.  The two U.S.-China mixed doubles teams gave the Americans an increased opportunity to finish the tournament on a pedestal at the first-ever world championship to be held on U.S. soil, which is what happened after Lily Zhang and Lin Gaoyaun made it to the semifinals only to fall to a Japanese mixed doubles team.

The two Chinese players, however, sacrificed a much better opportunity to medal–playing together they would have likely been the first or second seed.

In an era in which the U.S.-China relationship is as frosty as it has been since the 1960s, here’s hoping that this year’s ping pong diplomacy–which concludes today in Houston–has as much an impact on the world as it first did 50 years ago in 1971.

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