Table tennis is not the first thing you think of when you consider international diplomacy. But a tournament this week in Qatar aimed to use the sport to improve relations between rival nations. By REBECCA DAVIS.
In reality, the relationship between table tennis (or “pingpong” – there’s no difference) and politics stretches back to the 1970s, when the US table tennis team received an invitation to visit China. The People’s Republic was very big on the sport, but the invitation was highly unusual because, at that time, China was largely closed off to Americans. The visit paved the way for further interactions of this kind, with China sending pingpong teams to the US, Canada, Mexico and Peru thereafter, and the term “pingpong diplomacy” was coined.
This week an event in Qatar hoped to replicate some of that diplomatic success. A one-day table tennis tournament sponsored by a Monaco organisation called Peace and Sport brought pingpong players together and teamed them up to play doubles in incongruous combinations. Countries with currently hostile relations were made to play on the same teams. So US and Russia played together; North and South Korea were paired up; India and Pakistan made up another team. Iran was also supposed to participate but withdrew at last minute without explanation.
International Table Tennis Federation President Adham Shara told the Associated Press that “This event may mark a new era for pingpong diplomacy”. The partnership between North and South Korea was reportedly particularly amicable, with the two players described as the “very best of friends” after the tournament.
As for the results? In the women’s game, the American-Russian combination beat South and North Korea in the finals. When it came to the men, the outcome was the other way round. How very diplomatic. DM
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