Published November 03, 2011
DUBAI -- Much has changed since the age of "ping pong diplomacy" 40 years ago when nine American players first looked across the net at Chinese opponents, breaking the barriers between the two world powers.
The Cold War has been buried for two decades. China is now an economic powerhouse nipping at America's heels.
And the Gulf state of Qatar — an obscure patch of sand in 1971 — is emerging as an international sports giant with a relentless appetite for headline-grabbing events, including hosting an updated edition of table tennis-as-political icebreaker.
Ten countries — including foes United States and North Korea, and tense neighbors India and Pakistan — are scheduled to send players to Doha for a friendly tournament Nov. 21-22 in what's been billed by Qatar as the latest showcase of its global aspirations. It comes on top of the Gulf nation's hosting of football's 2022 World Cup and a new bid to try bring in the Olympics.
The event's aura, however, has been somewhat diminished by a snub from Iran, which was initially listed as a participant — and raised the groundbreaking possibly of an Iranian-American joint team during a mixed-nation portion of the tournament.
No reason was given by Iran for its sudden withdrawal, said Valerie Amant, spokeswoman for Monaco-based group Peace and Sport, which is helping organize the tournament. Iran's table tennis officials did not respond to requests for comment.
"This is ping pong diplomacy in a 21st century form," said Khalil al-Mohannadi, chairman of Qatar's Table Tennis Federation. "We are very committed to the idea that athletes can reach across barriers that may block politicians and diplomats."
It's also in keeping with Qatar's wide-net policies with sports: Troll for just about everything out there.
A year ago, Qatar nabbed the biggest sporting prize apart from the Olympics, the right to host football's World Cup finals in 2022. It immediately brought questions about whether the little nation of 1.7 million people used its mammoth energy wealth to effectively buy support through promises to build stadiums and aid sports programs in poor nations.
No violations have been found. But even the embarrassment of a full-blown bribery scandal failed to slow Qatar's ambitions.
Just months after football's governing body FIFA banned Qatar's Mohamed bin Hammam for life for allegedly bribing voters in his bid for the FIFA presidency, Qatar was fine-tuning bids to host the 2017 athletics world championships and the 2020 Olympics.
Qatar also has made no secret that it could someday seek a spot on the Formula 1 calendar — especially with lingering doubts about whether the Grand Prix can return to nearby Bahrain amid its political tensions and clashes.
"We have big dreams for sports in Qatar," said al-Mohannadi. "We also have big goals in political affairs. They go together in this event."
Qatar has hosted talks to ease conflicts in Lebanon and Sudan's Darfur region, and is leading Arab League efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria. Qatar once even broke ranks with Gulf neighbors and allowed an Israeli trade office, which was closed in anger over attacks in Gaza three years ago.
The upcoming table tennis event brings more political back stories to Qatar's shores.
India and Pakistan have come close to war several times over tensions including the disputed Kashmir region. The two Koreas have been in a technical state of war since the 1950s and territorial disputes still flare, including two military attacks on South Korea last year. Meanwhile, relations between Pakistan and America have soured over U.S. drone attacks and the secret mission that killed Usama bin Laden.
But why ping pong as a tool for diplomatic outreach?
Forty years ago, it was one of the few sports that the Chinese dominated and offered a chance to upstage the lesser-ranked Americans on their home soil. "We knew they could eat us for lunch.
The Chinese let us win a few matches as a gift," said Connie Sweeris, a member of the 1971 U.S. team. "I'm sure of that."
But other theories are tossed about for its enduring connection as a political safe zone.
Michael Cavanaugh, the CEO of the sport's American federation, USA Table Tennis, believes there is a special intimacy in playing on a nine-foot table. He also credits a tradition of fair play in the sport, including the tacit rule of intentionally missing a point if an opponent benefited from a blown referee call.
"It's about competition and winning, yes," said Cavanaugh. "There's also the inherent spirit of camaraderie and friendship built into the sport."
In December, the captain of the 1971 team, Jack Howard, and two teammates — Sweeris and Judy Hoarfrost — are scheduled to return to China for exhibition matches. Joining them will be Sweeris' husband Dell, who played the Chinese national team on its visit to the White House in 1972 after President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China.
"When we were first invited to play in China, we really had no idea of what it could lead to," said Connie Sweeris, 64, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. "We're still kind of amazed that we are part of this historical event and really proud that our sport is still seen as something that can bring people together."