- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

YORBA LINDA, Calif. (AP) | It was an unlikely diplomatic tool amid the escalating rhetoric of the Cold War: a few paddles, a few pingpong balls and nine giddy U.S. table tennis players in a country Americans hadn’t seen for decades.

Yet the week of table tennis exhibition games in China in April 1971 helped open China to the world, changed public opinion and paved the way for a groundbreaking visit from President Nixon, who is credited today with restoring diplomatic ties between the nations.

More than three decades later, China and the U.S. will pay homage this week to the now-famous “pingpong diplomacy” with a three-day event at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace that culminates in a rematch between several of the original athletes.

The games also are designed as a tribute to the friendly relations between the two nations today and as a prelude to the Beijing Olympics, an event that some think would not have been possible without the detente that began over a pingpong table.

“Back in the ‘70s, the communist Chinese were evil people, and it was a very dark country that we knew very little about,” said Steve Bull, director of government relations for the U.S. Olympic Committee and a former Nixon aide. “No one was envisioning that this dramatic trip to China would be a precursor to re-establishing diplomatic relations.”

The invitation from China came during the 31st World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, where the Chinese team was competing for the first time in six years. Just two days later, nine U.S. team members, team officials and two spouses flew to Hong Kong and then crossed into China - the first group of Americans to visit the country since 1949.

A handful of U.S. journalists were allowed to travel with them, breaking a news blackout from the communist country that had lasted more than two decades.

Team member George Braithwaite, 69, recalls that his passport contained a list of countries that were off-limits to Americans. Before boarding the plane in Tokyo, he said, a U.S. embassy official simply took out a pen and crossed the People’s Republic of China off the list.

“We were very naive about the whole thing. For us, it was an opportunity to go to China … to try to learn some of their skills and techniques that we could apply to our game,” he said.

“But when we were being ushered through side doors to get away from the media, that’s when it began to dawn on us that this trip had much more significance than simply a table tennis outing.”

An official with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries, which is co-sponsor of the upcoming event, said the rematch will remind modern-day Chinese about the importance of nurturing the relationships they now take for granted.

“The rematch will help our people, the younger generation in particular, understand the importance of the friendship and relations between our two countries,” said Ajay YingShan Jiang.

Once in China, the 1971 team marveled at the hospitality of their hosts, who kept up a rigorous schedule of elaborate banquets and tourism in between matches in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, then known as Canton.

But they also were stunned to see the three-story-tall portraits of Mao Zedong; the drab, chalky buildings and the primitive conditions in their hotel, where the curtains were made of uneven blankets and the showers didn’t work.

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