- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Much has changed since the age of “pingpong diplomacy” 40 years ago when nine American players first looked across the table-tennis net at Chinese opponents.

The matches broke barriers between the two world powers and opened the door for President Nixon to visit Beijing. The United States and communist China would later establish full diplomatic relations.

Now the Persian Gulf state of Qatar - an obscure patch of sand in 1971 - is emerging as an international sports giant with a relentless appetite for headline-grabbing events, including hosting an updated edition of table-tennis statecraft.

Ten countries - including foes the United States and North Korea, and tense neighbors India and Pakistan - are scheduled to send players to Doha for a friendly tournament Monday and Tuesday in what Qatar has billed the latest showcase of its global aspirations.

The tournament comes on top of the Gulf nation’s selection to host the 2022 soccer World Cup and a new bid to try to bring in the 2020 Olympics.

The event’s aura, however, has been diminished somewhat by a snub from Iran, which initially was listed as a participant - and raised the groundbreaking possibly of an Iranian-American joint team during a mixed-nation portion of the tournament.

Iran gave no reason for its sudden withdrawal, said Valerie Amant, spokeswoman for the Monaco-based group Peace and Sport, which is helping organize the tournament. Iran’s table-tennis officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“This is pingpong diplomacy in a 21st-century form,” said Khalil al-Mohannadi, chairman of Qatar’s Table Tennis Federation. “We are very committed to the idea that athletes can reach across barriers that may block politicians and diplomats.”

It is also in keeping with Qatar’s wide-net policies with sports.

A year ago, Qatar nabbed the biggest sporting prize apart from the Olympics, the right to host the World Cup finals in 2022. That immediately brought questions about whether the little nation of 1.7 million people used its mammoth energy wealth to buy support through promises to build stadiums and aid sports programs in poor nations.

No violations have been found, but even the embarrassment of a full-blown bribery scandal failed to slow Qatar’s ambitions.

Just months after soccer’s governing body, FIFA, banned Qatar’s Mohamed bin Hammam for life for allegedly bribing voters in his bid for the FIFA presidency, Qatar was fine-tuning bids to host the 2017 athletics world championships and the 2020 Olympics.

Qatar also has made no secret that it could someday seek a spot on the Formula 1 car-racing calendar - especially with lingering doubts about whether the Grand Prix can return to nearby Bahrain amid its political tensions and clashes.

“We have big dreams for sports in Qatar,” said Mr. al-Mohannadi. “We also have big goals in political affairs. They go together in this event.”

Qatar has hosted talks to ease conflicts in Lebanon and Sudan’s Darfur region. It also is leading Arab League efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.

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