Smiling through sports diplomacy

Updated: 2011-07-17 08:44

By Matt Hodges (China Daily)

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If you knew Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon plays table tennis for a club in New York and professes to love the game, would it change your view of China? Probably not, but it seems like a good beginning.

China has been using sports diplomacy to make better friends with the West for the last 40 years, starting with the arrival of nine American players on the mainland in April 1971 who played a series of friendly matches here.

The invitation was extended after one friendly gesture by a Chinese player at the World Table Tennis Championships earlier that year in Nagoya, Japan, which apparently made Chairman Mao stop and re-evaluate his foreign policy. The man in question, Zhuang Zedong, saw Glenn Cowan panicking after the US player missed his team bus, and quickly offered the man he had been schooled to view as an 'enemy' a lift with the Chinese team.

The two subsequently exchanged gifts - Cowan gave Zhuang a T-shirt emblazoned with a peace flag - Mao liked what he saw, and, one year later, US President Richard Nixon (who got elected partly on his anti-communist stance) was touring the Great Wall ahead of making the prophetic statement: "This was the week that changed the world." It was the first state visit by a US president to the PRC, and it all started, apparently, with a friendly gesture in Nagoya. The two countries normalized ties in 1979.

Recently in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Leewelcomed another Chinese delegation with paddle in hand to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the event, and declared July 5, 2011, to be "The Ping Pong Diplomacy Day."

Such opportunities at bridge-building are not to be missed, or squandered.

Smiling through sports diplomacy

Actress Sarandon appears on today's edition of Culture Matters trading shots with a Chinese Olympic paddler. Her evolving relationship with the non-English-speaking Chinese player over the course of 15 minutes or so on today's show is a classic example of the power of sports diplomacy, but it also pinpoints a weakness on the Chinese side.

Sarandon moves from initial misunderstanding and, perhaps, suspicion - she assumes he is mocking her, when in fact he is praising her spirit - to inviting him to New York to "practice playing while drinking and listening to music at our club, because that's what we do". She tries repeatedly to banter with him, pointing at one point to his "bad boy shoes", but he keeps a stiff upper lip and shows zero interest in her film career.

China must pick its 'sports diplomats' and 'goodwill ambassadors' wisely - and better train them in chilling out, warming up and opening up to the foreigners they meet.

A good start would be reminding Houston Rockets' All-Star Yao Ming (who, incidentally, carried the Olympic torch through Tian'anmen Square) to smile on Wednesday, when he is likely to announce his retirement from the NBA after nine seasons.

I saw Yao repeatedly in the Olympic Village during the Beijing Games, but I never saw him smile.

"He's been one of the greatest ambassadors to ever set foot on an NBA floor," said former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy recently. "This guy touched so many people, and really opened doors in China, not only for himself, but for so many others." If he could manage this, how hard is it to flash your molars once in a while?

Ditto for diving queen Guo Jingjing (I am in love with her), who is by far one of China's hottest, and reportedly most frosty, athletes.

What is my point? It's not size of your sports diplomacy that matters, it's what you do with it. This is why we can all learn a lesson from Sarandon, who at 64 has lost neither her looks nor her charm, when she informs the audience today that she is "a ping-pong propagandist" - while flashing a beautiful smile.

Culture Matters is a cross-cultural bilingual talk show on International Channel Shanghai (ICS), airing Sundays from 7 to 8 pm. The program can be viewed online at www.smgbb.cn.Culture Matters.

China Daily

(China Daily 07/17/2011 page15)