Ping Pong Diplomacy resonates a half century later

They have been an unlikely group of trailblazing diplomats, together with the 15-year-old who knew solely that China was a giant nation stuffed with communists — and actually good pingpong gamers.

Tossed into the center of a possible thawing in U.S. relations with China, although, Judy Bochenski and her American table tennis teammates helped ship one of many nice diplomatic coups of their time. Their rapidly organized journey for exhibitions in three Chinese language cities performed a job in parting the Purple Curtain and opening the way in which to a brand new world order that included China.

A half century later, with U.S.-China relations in a distinct interval of uncertainty, what grew to become often known as Ping Pong Diplomacy nonetheless resonates as instance of the potential of change when sports activities and politics collide.

“We have been simply sort of in the appropriate place on the proper time,” Bochenski stated. “We have been a spark that helped China and america accomplish what they have been attempting to do, which was to be in communication with one another.”

It was April 1971 and the Individuals have been in Japan, competing on this planet table tennis championships they’d no likelihood of profitable. The Individuals have been such minor gamers in a minor sport of their nation that they needed to pay their very own technique to Japan to compete.

As soon as there, they acquired the invite of a lifetime. The Chinese language have been trying to find a gap to interrupt a stalemate that had lasted greater than 20 years and start relations with america.

The pingpong gamers appeared the proper technique to break the ice.

As an alternative of going residence, Bochenski and her teammates out of the blue discovered themselves on a weeklong tour by a mysterious nation largely hidden from Westerners since simply after World Conflict II.

“A giant shock and a shock,” the now 65-year-old stated of her response to the invitation. “I knew China was a communist nation, however I didn’t know that a lot about what was occurring politically on the time.”

What was occurring was fairly extraordinary contemplating the tenor of the occasions. There had been hints dropped in earlier months about China reaching out to the U.S., however the last-minute invitation to the table tennis staff was the primary strong proof the Nixon administration had that China was the truth is excited about relations.

It labored so nicely that President Richard Nixon would get on Air Pressure One the subsequent yr to make a state go to to China that enthralled the world.

The go to doubtless would have occurred finally even with out the pingpong staff. Nixon had been searching for methods to have interaction the Chinese language, largely as a result of he noticed them as a Chilly Conflict deterrent that the U.S. may play off in opposition to the Soviet Union, whereas China was taking the primary steps towards opening as much as the surface world.

Nonetheless, nobody in Washington noticed this sports activities diplomacy coming, although that didn’t cease the president and his staff from attempting to reap the benefits of the opening.

“We’re enjoying for a lot larger stakes with the Russian — and this factor is sending them proper up the wall, the Ping Pong staff,” Nixon says to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger per week later in transcripts of Oval Workplace recordings supplied by the Nixon Presidential Library. “And we are also enjoying for top stakes with the Chinese language. It makes good — it’s superb copy right here for us to seem like the individuals which can be, have opened up the Chinese language factor.”

To know simply how massive a deal the staff’s journey was, some context is required a couple of nation that has since change into a superpower. Bochenski and the touring staff of 15 American gamers and coaches have been the primary group of Individuals allowed into China because the communists gained energy in 1949.

The nation they discovered was far completely different from something they’d seen. Bochenski wore a miniskirt that drew stares from Chinese language all attired in grey uniforms, and Chinese language followers clapped in unison at odd occasions throughout the matches. China was nonetheless in the course of the Cultural Revolution, and there have been loads of stares for everybody, together with considered one of Bochenski’ s long-haired teammates who shortly grew to become a Chinese language favourite.

They flew to Hong Kong and took a prepare to the China border. Then they traveled by trains and propeller planes to exhibition matches in three cities. The exhibitions themselves — the one in Beijing drew some 20,000 followers — weren’t at all times of the very best degree as a result of the vastly superior Chinese language gamers have been advised to permit the Individuals to win.

“They stored saying to us that these have been pleasant matches,’’ Bochenski stated in a telephone interview with The Related Press. ”If they’d have clobbered us like they may, it wouldn’t have seemed good.”

Again within the U.S., Nixon and Kissinger have been following the journey intently. A rapprochement with China was fraught with political peril, however on April 14 Nixon relaxed some forex restrictions and introduced that Chinese language may get visas to journey to the U.S.

“I take care of the China issues for long-range causes — very, essential causes,” Nixon advised Kissinger a day earlier. “Now that brings us to the current factor: Ping pong. It’s essential now.”

A number of months later, Kissinger made a secret journey to China, and the subsequent yr Nixon would go to within the crowning overseas coverage achievement of his administration. Whereas in China, the 2 governments issued the Shanghai Communique, which established the framework for regular relations and stays a elementary base of relations between the 2 nations immediately.

Bochenski would come residence a minor superstar, greeted on the airport in San Francisco with an impromptu information convention. Two reporters from the Oregonian newspaper acquired her inside scoop on the aircraft from Portland to her household’s residence in Eugene, and she or he flew to New York to be Interviewed by Barbara Walters on nationwide tv.

“We have been sort of proud we went there earlier than Nixon,” stated Bochenski, who has returned to China a number of occasions and remains to be concerned in table tennis as operator of a Portland sport provide firm began by her father. “I’d meet individuals they usually’d say you’re the woman who went to China.

“For a very long time I used to be often known as the woman who went to China.”


Tim Dahlberg is a nationwide sports activities columnist for The Related Press. Write to him at or

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