Table tennis table with two table tennis bats on which the Chinese and German flags are depicted respectively.

Ping-Pong and Cricket Diplomacy

The 1971 table tennis A global conversation world championships triggered a friendship between US player Glenn Cowan and Zhunag Zedong of China. This led to the US team being invited to visit China. They were the first sports team, and indeed the first American group of any kind, to travel to China since 1949. Mao remarked: ‘This Zhuang is not only a good table tennis player, he’s also a good diplomat.’ An insider’s view of how sport can help to build ties between nations.

A Chinese teacher taught me an old Chinese saying: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. For Germany and China, one such step was taken in April 2008 when Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior and the General Administration of Sport of China signed a General Memorandum of Understanding on Sports Cooperation. There is no doubt that sport and sports policy can break down barriers between nations and contribute to detente and peace. But despite this, in 2007 the Beijing Olympics attracted a huge amount of criticism at home and abroad. Some European cities, including in France, displayed banners and posters that were critical of China. This culminated in critical statements and demands being made by politicians, such as the former President of the European Parliament Hans Gert Pöttering, who threatened a European boycott of the Olympics in China and called on the Chinese government to hold talks with the Dalai Lama.

Germany’s Minister of the Interior at that time, Wolfgang Schäuble, was not impressed by this scenario and insisted that bridges could be built through a targeted, bilateral cooperation on sport, which would serve mutual understanding much better than calls for boycotts. He held an official meeting with China’s sports minister, Liu Peng, during the latter’s visit to Germany in 2007, and I had an opportunity to spend a few days with the Chinese delegation. Liu Peng immediately agreed to my proposal regarding drawing up a joint agreement, and the text was ready shortly afterwards.

Interior Minister Schäuble and a delegation travelled to Beijing before the Olympic Games to hold discussions on sports policy. It was important for him to visit before the Games opened in order to benefit from the momentum of this visit. The agreement that he signed with China on that occasion is still the only one ever made between a German Interior Minister and a foreign country in the realm of sport.

Like other agreements made between the German Interior Ministry and other countries, this agreement has the legal status of a memorandum of understanding. In it, both parties emphasise exchange and cooperation in the area of sport based on mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, while respecting human rights and building the Olympic spirit.

The signing of this Memorandum of Understanding triggered a series of congresses, symposiums and workshops in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013, jointly funded by Germany and China.

As history has shown, sport has often been used as a way of promoting particular ideologies.

Another milestone in China and Germany’s bilateral efforts to promote peace and rapprochement was the first Sino-German Sports Law Conference, held in Bonn in October 2010. It was a great success for international sports cooperation, attracting delegates from China, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and even the USA, along with representatives of the EU Commission.

It is not uncommon for these kinds of joint projects to gradually fizzle out, but this was not the case with China. Many more sports policy symposiums were held over the years that followed. This collaboration is significant because sport and sports policy are closely linked to many areas of society. Particular interdependencies exist with politics, the economy, media and the education system. And yes, sport has an ambivalent relationship with peace and violence. As history has shown, sport has often been used as a way of promoting particular ideologies.

During the Cold War, class warfare was brought into the stadium by the military and a ‘sporting arms race’ began. The battle over political differences was continued using other means and on other stages.

Black and white photograph: Chinese and US table tennis players compete in men's doubles in Detroit, United States, 14 April 1972.
The 1971 table tennis world championships held in Japan triggered a friendship between US player Glenn Cowan and Zhunag Zedong of China, photo: Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua via picture alliance

However, the idea of sport, as it is also formulated for the Olympic Games, remains one of peace. The emphasis is on sharing and getting to know different cultures, and in this way building ties between people across national borders.

In this sense, sport can even be at the cutting edge of diplomacy, as shown by the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ that took place between the US and China during the Nixon era. In 1971 political relations between China and the USA were at a low ebb. The two countries had troops supporting opposing sides in the Vietnam War, and the Korean War was still far from forgotten.

The 1971 table tennis world championships held in Japan triggered a friendship between US player Glenn Cowan and Zhunag Zedong of China.

The friendship that grew between the two athletes led to the Chinese leadership inviting American players to come to China to play some friendly matches (and allegedly allowed them to win). This American table tennis team was the first group of any kind from the US to visit China since 1949. When Mao Zedong learned of these activities he supposedly said: ‘This Zhuang is not only a good table tennis player (he was world champion three times), but also a good diplomat.’ Despite many misgivings, particularly on the part of the US, the American players travelled to China.

A Chinese sports delegation was subsequently invited to the USA. There are reports that a baseball game took place, and surprisingly the Chinese won. Shortly afterwards a high-level meeting was held between politicians on both sides. And finally in 1972 US President Richard Nixon travelled to China. Since then, political relations between the two countries have steadily improved, with diplomatic relations being officially opened in 1978.

Richard Nixon commented on his visit to China: ‘This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past’.

In 1979 China became a member of the IOC and took part in the Olympics for the first time in 1984 in Los Angeles. In 2008 it hosted the Games for the first time, and we now know that they will be held again in China. There is still a hope that politicians on both sides will use the Olympic spirit for the benefit of humankind.

The established sports system within a country – and I think this also applies to Germany – reflects its orientation and interest in culture, politics, social ideology and business.

Black and white photograph: Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, left, and US President Richard Nixon shake hands at a meeting in Beijing, China.
In 1972 US President Richard Nixon travelled to China. By 1978, diplomatic relations between the two countries were officially established, photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited via picture alliance

At this point it would seem appropriate to examine particular occurrences, such as buying the right to host World Cups and corruption within the DFB, FIFA and IOC, but that would be a step too far. However, one thing is clear: a country’s established sports system is a kind of ‘miniature’ of that country’s overall system. If we use its system and phenomenology for political ends, then sporting relations can be used to achieve closer relations between countries.

So far, it seems that studies have not been able to prove beyond doubt that sport is able to secure peace. But it is safe to say that sport has a role to play in terms of socialisation and integration. In international relations, the way that institutions present sport also has a great deal of symbolic significance. It can allow key conditions to be set that are necessary for creating international relations in a peaceful way.

Alongside the aforementioned ping-pong diplomacy, history also provides us with other examples of how sport has a role in peacekeeping. We will take a look at the role of sport in South Africa under Nelson Mandela; the ‘cricket diplomacy’ between India and Pakistan in 2004; and finally attempts to use sport and sports policy to help resolve the Middle East conflict between Israel and Palestine.

There are reports that a baseball game took place, and surprisingly the Chinese won.

South Africa began enforcing its apartheid structures after the end of the Second World War. Sport was used as a political instrument. It was run by a post-colonial elite and was primarily aimed at whites. As a result, an international lobbying initiative led to calls for a sports boycott. In 2007, Nelson Mandela recognised the power of sport and its particular potential when he said: ‘Sport has the power to unite people in a way little else can. Sport awakes hope where there was previously only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.’ The decades of sporting discrimination in South Africa were certainly part of the momentum that led to the fall of the apartheid regime. When Mandela took over as president, he tried to harness the power of sport by energetically working to promote the nation’s sporting development.

Sport also had a positive effect on the conflict between India and Pakistan. Echoing the ping-pong diplomacy of 1971, the matches played between India and Pakistan in 2004 were referred to as ‘cricket diplomacy’. The Indian team went to Pakistan to play a series of friendly matches, with a view to creating closer ties through sport. This was the first time a cricket series had been played between the two countries since 1989, and it led to people rethinking their view of the other side as ‘the enemy’.

The Football for Peace initiative launched in 2000 also had the objective of using sport and wide-ranging sports projects to help resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. With the support of the UK and a number of Jewish and Arab communities, it was possible to build excellent social contacts between children.

There had already been successful collaborations in many areas of sport at nongovernmental level involving NGOs, sports associations, universities and other institutions. But now the idea was to intensify sports cooperation between Germany’s Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for sport in Germany, the Israeli sports ministry and the body responsible for sport in Palestine. The aim was to organise a conference or symposium, perhaps initiated by Germany, and involving Israeli and Palestinian sports experts.

Bringing the Two Sides to the Table

The President of the IOC at a meeting with the head of the Palestinian delegation, General Jibril Rajoub (left), and Zvi Varshaviak (right), head of the Israeli delegation.
IOC President Jacques Rogge (centre) at a meeting with the head of the Palestinian delegation, General Jibril Rajoub (left), and Zvi Varshaviak (right), head of the Israeli delegation, Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS | Anja Niedringhaus via picture alliance

The aim was to get the two sides round the table. An initial meeting was held between a delegation from the German Interior Ministry and the Israeli Sports Ministry in 2009 to discuss the main points to be included in a joint agreement. I signed the first General Memorandum of Understanding between the two ministries in Bonn in October 2010, along with the Director of Sport from the Israeli Ministry of Sport.

The agreement made a commitment to sport policy cooperation between the two ministries and included the joint organisation of events. In light of the political situation, the idea soon emerged to organise a larger international conference that would highlight the role of sport as a mediator between nations.

In September 2011, under the patronage of UNESCO, the first joint international conference organised by the German Interior Ministry and the Israeli Sports Ministry was held at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, Israel, titled 'Sport, A Mediator Between Cultures'. 350 experts from across the Mediterranean region attended the conference, which was opened by Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Christoph Bergner, Secretary of State responsible for sport in Germany’s Ministry of the Interior. Unfortunately no sports experts from Palestine managed to attend, an absence that the Israeli side explained was due to security reasons.

As the conference was organised under the auspices of UNESCO, it was also attended by Willi Lemke, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace. With his assistance, we and a German delegation spontaneously drove in a UN convoy to visit General Rajoub at his home in Ramallah.

This visit to Jibril Rajoub, Head of the Palestinian Supreme Council for Sport and Youth Affairs, in Ramallah laid the foundations for the agreement that was signed on 18 June 2012 in Bonn.

Of course this Memorandum of Understanding on Sports Cooperation also highlighted the importance of sharing knowledge and experience, supporting training camps and, above all, being willing to take part in projects that promote peace and coexistence in the Middle East. On the occasion of the signing of the memorandum in Bonn, I took the opportunity to accompany General Rajoub and Salah Abdel, the Palestinian ambassador to Germany, on a visit to the home of Konrad Adenauer in Rhöndorf. While strolling through Adenauer’s rose garden, it became clear that there was a strong desire to take the collaboration forward in the planned form, and today I can still be an important instrument for peace policy in the Middle East that should not be underestimated. UNESCO, the EU Council and the European Union need to intensify their commitment to this process. I can still hear Rajoub’s deep voice in my ear. The plan was to hold a joint congress in Amman with delegates from Germany, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. I subsequently tried to get Jordan on board, but my last conversation with the Jordanian ambassador in Berlin in 2013 revealed that this was not possible due to the state of political relations between the countries involved.

Once again it became clear that even sports policy has its limits. But it can still be an important instrument for peace policy in the Middle East that should not be underestimated. UNESCO, the EU Council and the European Union need to intensify their commitment to this process.

About the Author
Karl-Heinz Schneider
Expert for International Sports Policy

Karl-Heinz Schneider was head of European and international sports policy at the German Ministry of the Interior for 15 years. He organised the UNESCO World Sport Ministers Conference (MINEPS) in Berlin in 2013. He is currently a group head at the German Federal Academy of Public Administration in Brühl, part of the Federal Ministry of the Interior.

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