Zhuang Zedong, athlete and key figure in 1971 China-US 'pingpong diplomacy,' dies at 72

Zhuang Zedong, a key figure in 1971's groundbreaking "pingpong diplomacy" between China and the U.S., has died. He was 72 and long struggled with cancer.

A three-time world champion in table tennis, Zhuang won new fame by presenting a gift to American player Glenn Cowan, who had inadvertently boarded a bus carrying the Chinese team at the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. Zhuang and Cowan were photographed together, creating an international sensation at a time when China and the U.S. were bitter Cold War rivals.

The 15-member American team was then invited to China for an ice-breaking visit. Ten months later, President Richard Nixon made a surprise visit to China, leading to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979.

Zhuang's death Sunday was reported by China's official Xinhua News Agency.