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US player speaks of significance of Ping-Pong Diplomacy

By He Qi in Shanghai | | Updated: 2021-04-09 17:23
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Editor's note: Upon the invitation of China, the US table tennis delegation visited China in 1971 after participating in the 31st World Championships. The trip paved the way for the re-establishment of Sino-US relations that had been suspended for 22 years. The event became known as Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

Organized by the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy will be held in Shanghai on April 10 at the International Table Tennis Federation Museum.

The event will feature several players who experienced the historical event in 1971.

When Judy Hoarfrost left the United States for the Table Tennis World Championships in Nagoya in April 1971, she did not know that she would also end up among the first group of Americans to travel to China since 1949.

A few days before the end of the World Championships, the team accepted the invitation to travel to China, and a delegation of 15 people headed west from Japan.

The delegation included a 15-year-old Hoarfrost, Judy Bochenski, Glenn Cowan, John Tannehill, Errol Resek, George Brathwaite, Connie Sweeris, and Olga Soltesz. During their visit, the group visited cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where they took part in "Friendship Matches".

"I won three of my four matches in China. The players in China were doing their best to make us look good in front of the crowds and the world stage," said Hoarfrost, who later established a table tennis company called Paddle Palace Table Tennis Co.

Judy Hoarfrost with Ping-Pong Diplomacy players. Hoarfrost (middle bottom row) with her two team-mates from the women's team and three Chinese players in China. Photo provided to

"The mantra throughout the trip was 'Friendship First, Competition Second', and I'm sure that the players we played were very strong players who could have won most or all of the matches," the 65-year-old added.

The delegation also met Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People, which according to Hoarfrost was a particularly memorable experience.

"Shaking hands with Premier Zhou and sitting with him and listening him talk with our delegation is something I'll never forget. It was when we left China that I learned that a photo of myself shaking hands with Premier Zhou Enlai was on the front page of newspapers around the world," she said.

A recent photo of Judy Hoarfrost. Photo provided to

"From a table tennis perspective, the Chinese players excelled at the sport. I had great respect for their expertise, and I learned a lot from practicing and playing with them. All the communications that we had the whole time we were in China were friendly and respectful, and I very much enjoyed listening and learning from it," she added.

Hoarfrost said that the event had a lasting impact in her as people still ask her about the historical event over four decades later.

"I think because of my travels and all the people that I met at a young age in table tennis, I learned to view everything from a broader perspective. I didn't just take for granted that a certain political system or a certain way of living or what is status quo is necessarily right," said Hoarfrost.

The friendly matches in Beijing in 1971. Photo provided to

"I am still like this today."

Besides her involvement with Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971, Hoarfrost also traveled with the Chinese team during their two-week tour of the US in 1972. She still remembers her interactions with one of the younger players from the Chinese team.

"When asked how she felt about coming to the USA, she said she had some concern because of all the negative things that she had heard before she came. But when she was in the USA, this changed. I think this is somewhat similar to the process that many of the USA players experienced," Hoarfrost said.

Since her first trip to China in 1971, Hoarfrost has returned several times to attend events such as the 30th and 40th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy and the 110th anniversary of Premier Zhou's birth.

"When we look back 50 years, we can recognize the outstanding achievement of establishing regular diplomatic relations with ongoing dialog between our countries. I feel we must never underestimate how important this relationship is. It is only through working together that we can overcome the huge challenges that we face – with preserving the environment, with maintaining peace, and with ensuring a healthy global population," she said.

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