YORBA LINDA, Calif. – It was an unlikely diplomatic tool amid the escalating rhetoric of the Cold War: a few paddles, a few ping pong balls and nine giddy U.S. table tennis players in a country Americans hadn't seen for decades.
Yet the week of table tennis exhibition games in China in April 1971 helped open China to the world, changed public opinion and paved the way for a groundbreaking visit from President Richard Nixon, who is credited today with restoring diplomatic ties between the nations.
More than three decades later, China and the U.S. will pay homage this week to the now-famous "ping pong diplomacy" with a three-day event at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace that culminates in a rematch between several of the original — and aging — athletes.
The games also are designed as a tribute to the friendly relations between the two nations today and as a prelude to the Beijing Olympics, an event that some believe would not have been possible without the detente that began over a ping pong table.
"Back in the '70s, the communist Chinese were evil people and it was a very dark country that we knew very little about," said Steve Bull, director of government relations for the U.S. Olympic Committee and a former Nixon aide. "No one was envisioning that this dramatic trip to China would be a precursor to re-establishing diplomatic relations."
The invitation from China came during the 31st World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, where the Chinese team was competing for the first time in six years. Just two days later, nine U.S. team members, team officials and two spouses flew to Hong Kong and then crossed into China — the first group of Americans to visit the country since 1949.
A handful of U.S. journalists were allowed to travel with them, breaking a news blackout from the communist country that had lasted more than two decades. Time magazine called the trip "the ping heard around the world" and Americans became obsessed with the story.
Team member George Braithwaite, now 69, recalled that his passport contained a list of countries that were off-limits to Americans. Before boarding the plane in Tokyo, he said, a U.S. embassy official simply took out a pen and crossed the People's Republic of China off the list.
"We were very naive about the whole thing. For us, it was an opportunity to go to China ... to try to learn some of their skills and techniques that we could apply to our game," he said.
"But when we were being ushered through side doors to get away from the media, that's when it began to dawn on us that this trip had much more significance than simply a table tennis outing."
An official with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which is co-sponsor of the upcoming event, said the rematch will remind modern-day Chinese about the importance of nurturing the relationships they now take for granted.
"The rematch will help our people, the younger generation in particular, understand the importance of the friendship and relations between our two countries," said Ajay YingShan Jiang, of the association.
Once in China, the 1971 team marveled at the hospitality of their hosts, who kept up a rigorous schedule of elaborate banquets and tourism in between matches in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, then known as Canton.
But they were also stunned to see the three-story-tall portraits of Mao Zedong, the drab, chalky buildings and the primitive conditions in their hotel, where the curtains were made of uneven blankets and the showers didn't work. One player, a 17-year-old girl, cried until someone made her a hamburger and fries.
The Americans also quickly realized that the far superior Chinese were letting them win. Braithwaite, for example, said he won two of three matches against Liang Geliang in a gym crowded with 18,000 spectators — even though Liang was one of the top three players in the world.
"They were like No. 1, we were like No. 28 in the world," said Tim Boggan, who traveled with the team as editor of U.S. Table Tennis magazine. "Nobody expected anything other than that they'd make the matches close."
Braithwaite and Liang will replay their match Thursday and Boggan, now 77, will also play one game. The rest of the event, which kicks off Tuesday, will be filled with skills demonstrations, clinics and games between current U.S. and Chinese ping pong stars.
The 1971 team's youngest member, 15-year-old Judy Hoarfrost, hopes that with the renewed interest will also come a fresh understanding of the unifying power of sports.
"It was a world-changing event and I wish we could do some of our diplomacy more like that now," said Hoarfrost, 52.
For his part, Braithwaite has been working hard to find a way around Liang's nasty backhand and aggressive forehand. The table tennis Hall of Fame member thinks that maybe this time, Liang won't have to let him win.
"I'm really looking forward to this. I know that I'm playing well," he said. "I've been practicing hard."