Qatar once even broke ranks with Gulf neighbors and allowed an Israeli trade office, which was closed in anger over attacks in Gaza three years ago.
The upcoming table-tennis event brings more political back stories to Qatar’s shores.
India and Pakistan have come close to war several times over tensions including the disputed Kashmir region. The two Koreas have been in a technical state of war since the 1950s, and territorial disputes still flare between them, including two military attacks on South Korea last year.
Meanwhile, relations between Pakistan and the United States have soured over U.S. drone attacks on terrorist targets and the secret mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
In 1971, pingpong was one of the few sports the Chinese dominated. A match with the lesser-ranked U.S. team offered a chance to upstage the Americans on Chinese soil.
“We knew they could eat us for lunch. The Chinese let us win a few matches as a gift,” said Connie Sweeris, a member of the U.S. team. “I’m sure of that.”
Other theories are tossed about for its enduring connection as a political safe zone.
Michael D. Cavanaugh, CEO of the sport’s American federation, USA Table Tennis, says he thinks there is a special intimacy in playing on a 9-foot-long table.
He also credits a tradition of fair play in the sport, including the tacit rule of intentionally missing a point if an opponent benefited from a blown referee call.
“It’s about competition and winning, yes,” Mr. Cavanaugh said. “There’s also the inherent spirit of camaraderie and friendship built into the sport.”
In December, the captain of the 1971 team, Jack Howard, and two teammates - Mrs. Sweeris and Judy Hoarfrost - are scheduled to return to China for exhibition matches.
“When we were first invited to play in China, we really had no idea of what it could lead to,” said Mrs. Sweeris, 64, of Grand Rapids, Mich.
“We’re still kind of amazed that we are part of this historical event and really proud that our sport is still seen as something that can bring people together.”