Let’s face it: It’s highly unlikely that ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman’s friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un will ever repair relations between the United States and Jong-Un’s totalitarian homeland. But, as history has proven, athletes can actually be remarkably effective ambassadors for peace and change. Here, Ping-Pong Diplomacy author Nicholas Griffin recalls five real-life examples when athletes transformed the world.
Sometimes political enmity between countries runs so deep, tensions are insurmountable at the slow pace of politics. Yet, the right game at the right time—wonderful moments of human drama on playing fields, in swimming pools, even on table tennis tables—can shift perceptions between enemies and create space for positive political action.
The 1971 U.S.-China ping-pong exchange
China and the U.S. had had very little contact in the 22 years leading up to 1971’s World Table Tennis Championships. But, in April 1971, while in Japan for the competition, the U.S. ping-pong squad received a surprise invitation by the Chinese national team to play a few games in Beijing. In reality, the Chinese team’s “spontaneous” invitation was actually orchestrated by the Chinese government. (In those days, all sports were political in China, and none more so than ping-pong.) The American squad succeeded where politicians before them had failed, becoming the first Americans to visit Beijing since 1949. The ping-pong exchange—detailed in my book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy—made a huge impact, transforming American perceptions of the “Red Chinese” and setting the scene for President Nixon’s momentous trip to China in 1972.
The 1956 Olympics water polo semi-final match between Hungary and the Soviet Union
When you come from a tiny country that’s just been crushed by its much bigger, more powerful neighbor, how do you regain that sense of national pride? That was the challenge for the Hungarian men’s water polo team at the 1956 Summer Olympics. As the team prepared to head to Australia for the Games, Soviet tanks were squelching a massive Hungarian popular uprising. As fate would have it, the Hungarians ended up facing the Soviets in the men’s water polo semi-finals and prevailed, winning gold. The Soviets left their mark, however: By the end of the match, the pool was red with Hungarian blood—a perfect metaphor for the struggle Hungary would have to endure before the fall of the Soviet Union.
India’s win in the 1983 Cricket World Cup
Where to pinpoint the rise of a nation? Perhaps when self-belief starts to spread. India upset the cricketing order when they competed in 1983’s Cricket World Cup in England—and won. The tension between the Indian and English teams was thick; after all, it had been less than four decades since the English government decolonized India. In the end, after a string of upset wins, the Indians won the final, awakening fans at home to their country’s potential.
Nelson Mandela supports the South African rugby team in the 1995 World Cup
Shortly after becoming president of the new, post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela embraced the country’s national rugby team, the Springboks. It was a bold move: Long a symbol of pride for white, Afrikaner South Africans—but one of exclusion for blacks—the Springboks didn’t yet have the support of the entire nation. Mandela worked to change that, urging all of his countrymen to rally behind the team going into the 1995 World Cup. South Africa hosted the contest, and the Sprinboks won. As the nation watched, Mandela hand-delivered the trophy to the team’s white captain, François Pienaar, and shook his hand, a deeply symbolic overture that represented both forgiveness and hope for the future. The 2009 film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, tells the incredible story.
The 1936 Olympic gold medal wrestling match between a Jew and a German
Hosting the 1936 Summer Olympic games, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler aimed to prove that the Aryan race and the Third Reich were superior in every way. Much to his dismay, many Jewish athletes won medals in the games, including Hungarian Karoly Karpati, who clinched gold in lightweight freestyle wrestling. Karpati defeated German favorite Wolfang Ehrl in the gold medal match before an audience that included Hitler. Rather than shake Karpati’s hand, Hitler supposedly left the stadium early. Gold medal aside, Karpati made an undeniably powerful statement about Hitler’s racist politics.