The one-on-one interactions between regular players I described yesterday not representing their countries led to a series of ping pong players from each nation touring the others’. With the Vietnam War raging, the press around the world covered the interactions.
According to Smithsonian Magazine
Soon after the U.S. team’s trip, Nixon, not wanting to lose momentum, secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Peking to arrange a Presidential visit to China. Nixon’s journey seven months later, in February 1972, would become one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. For Nixon, it was “the week that changed the world.”
One player’s response after returning from China stands out to me for how unremarkable he finds them. It stands out because global diplomacy, as I see it, distorted our expectations of regular everyday people there (who happen to play ping pong well).
The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feeling. I made friends, I made genuine friends, you see. The country is similar to America, but still very different. It’s beautiful. They got the Great Wall, they got plains over there. They got an ancient palace, the parks, there’s streams, and they got ghosts that haunt; there’s all kinds of, you know, animals. The country changes from the south to the north. The people, they have a, a unity. They really believe in their Maoism.
“They are just like us… genuine… feelings… similar… beautiful… parks… streams…”
How does it happen that we find their having parks and streams remarkable?!? Did he expect a giant concrete surface with a bunch of factories?
Yet that was the United States in 1971 — we found China having parks and streams remarkable.
And yet that was one of my main observations of North Korea — that the similarity of the people and land to everything I was used to belied my expectations. They belied the expectations of nearly everyone I talked to about North Korea.
Nobody asked me if they were just like us. Everybody asked about missiles, prisons, armies, Clinton negotiating prisoners’ releases, and famines. Nobody asked about parks and streams. Not that my expectations before going were different.
As much as visiting North Korea at all affected me, playing Ultimate Frisbee affected me far more. Because, as I found out, playing sport doesn’t just let you interact, it gets you to connect and interact viscerally, communicating more meaning than words can.
I’m going to make the case later that playing sports, along with level-playing-field trade and arts, comprise the most effective strategy to start the process of creating mutually beneficial relations between people — more effective than diplomacy, politics, military, aid, and sanctions. Governments favor the latter strategies because they have only them, but I believe promoting playing sports, trade, and arts work better. For one thing, no matter how small a role you believe ping pong played in opening China, it improved things significantly nonetheless, at no risk, with no harm to anyone.
Why? Because playing sports makes you represent yourself. You may want to defeat your opponent in the game, but you want them to improve, come back, and play again. You play in person. You shake hands at the end. You want your kids to do it. You interact and communicate in many many ways — in word, body language, strategy, and so on.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Maybe I’ve overstated myself. Playing sports lets people do what governments wish they could. I don’t believe playing sports resolves everything, but we aren’t ready to solve everything yet. We want to open communications without losing face.
By the way, by “playing sports” I don’t mean big corporate businesses like professional baseball or football. I mean people playing themselves.
Tomorrow: why ping pong and ultimate