Pingpong diplomacy redux

Table-tennis tourney just start of Qatar’s drive to be world sports giant

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.

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.

Other nations scheduled to compete in the $100,000 table-tennis tournament are China, Japan, Russia, France and Qatar.

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.

Joining them will be Mrs. Sweeris’ husband, Dell, who played the Chinese national team on its visit to the White House in 1972 after Mr. Nixon’s historic trip to China.

“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.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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