Diplomacy in the Sports Arena

Not all diplomats work for foreign ministries.


Though it took control over the Chinese mainland in 1949, the U.S. government refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the communist-led government in Beijing. And after war on the Korean peninsula pitted Chinese troops against American ones from 1950 to 1953, both governments adopted a stance of official hostility.

Who would have guessed that ping-pong could help end that hostility? Or that the great breakthrough in U.S.-China relations could have been advanced by a simple gesture of friendship from one athlete towards another?

But that is what happened.

In 1971 Glenn Cowan, a member of the U.S. national ping pong team, stumbled on to the Chinese team bus at a Tokyo competition. The bus doors closed. Back in China, the Cultural Revolution was continuing and nationalist rhetoric was fierce. The U.S. and China were Cold War foes, each backing opposing sides in the Vietnam War. Chinese athletes were told to avoid mixing with foreigners at international competitions. None of the Chinese players on the bus moved or said anything as the confused Cowan wondered what to do. Sitting at the back, Zhuang Zedong, three-time world men’s champion, felt sorry for Cowan. He gave Cowan a silk-screen portrait. Later, Cowan reciprocated with a t-shirt featuring a peace sign. These small gestures lead to a formal invitation to the American team to visit China, a visit that signaled the arrival of a new era in U.S.-China relations.