'Ping Pong Diplomacy' Celebrates 50 Years, Just As U.S., China Need It Again

The best table tennis players in the world descended upon Japan in March of 1971, all looking for championships. Shortly after the tournament ended in April, the eyes of the world shifted to the American team, but not necessarily for their prowess in the sport.

The U.S. team received an invitation to take an eight-day, red carpet tour of communist China. The team entered the country on April 10, 1971, becoming the first Americans to visit China since the Communist Revolution in 1949. The Americans got the grand tour, played some exhibition matches against the Chinese team, met some dignitaries and played a significant role in helping governments start coming together to eventually end the Cold War in the late 1980s.

This became known as the "Ping Pong Diplomacy" between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong. It was brought to light in the movie Forrest Gump when the main character learned the game of table tennis during the Vietnam War and later became a fictional part of the diplomacy. But the actual "Ping Pong Diplomacy" was real, and it had real effects with sports tearing down walls.

Ping Pong Diplomacy Judy Bochenski
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, center left, and China Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya, center right, watch a table tennis games play between China's Qi Baoxiang, left, and Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost of the US during a commemorative table tennis match marking China's invitation to a U.S. table tennis team to visit in 1971, known as "ping-pong diplomacy," on January 7, 2009 in Beijing, China. John Negroponte met with his Chinese counterpart to commemorate 30 years of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, which began in 1979. Getty/Andy Wong

Now, while there are celebrations to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of that monumental event, the U.S. and China still have high tensions. They range from trade deals to human rights issues to China's origin of the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus.

As once there was a time sports helped two countries break down a barrier, some American politicians are now calling for the U.S. and other western countries to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

One member of that U.S. team in 1971 was Judy Bochenski, who lived in Eugene, Oregon, and was just 15 at the time. She needed her parents' permission to travel into China when the Americans received their surprise invitation on April 6 that year.

Bochenski recalls the events from the spring of 1971 quite vividly. She remembers everything from her awe of the Great Wall, the food, Tiananmen Square, the constant press that followed them around the country, the exhibitions, a ballet, the opera, the political propaganda of communism and giant photos of Chairman Mao plastered everywhere.

Ping Pong Diplomacy Judy Bochenski
Members of the U.S. table tennis team stand in front of a building with a portrait of Mao-Tse-Tung during a week-long visit to Communist China. Left to right: Olga Soltesez, 16, Orlando, FL; Judy Bochenski, 15, of Eugene, OR; Mrs. Madeleine Buben, Detroit, MI; and Connie Sweeris of Grand Rapids, MI. The team returned to Hong Kong April 17th. Photo via Getty Images

She said the Chinese people, for the most part, didn't have many possessions. Hardly anyone had TVs or telephones, meaning they had no way to get information from the outside world. The men and women dressed very similarly in what they called drab "Mao" suits. Women had short haircuts, nothing like the fashions worn back in the states, and women never wore dresses or skirts.

Bochenski learned that communism wasn't exactly everything she read in a book.

"I was in 10th grade when we went to China. And in ninth grade, we had studied China. We studied mostly the dynasties and the long, full, rich history of China," Bochenski said. "We knew about the Communist Revolution, but we didn't really know much about modern-day China, I don't think many people really did."

Bochenski said that, even in 1971 when it looked poor, desolate and isolated, China was in the beginning of a Cultural Revolution.

"We had translators and guides, and we asked them what was happening in China, and they answered," said Bochenski, who now goes by her married name of Judy Hoarfrost. "They said women were oppressed for so many years, but now women can work. They were changing society for the better. They were giving daycare for women so they could work."

The American table tennis players during that trip became the eyes for the rest of the world to get a glimpse into China. When the team returned to the United States, they went on media and speaking tours. For the 15-year-old Bochenski, it happened when she stepped off the plane in San Francisco.

"I was led off the plane to a stage with hundreds of cameras and then just had a press conference. They didn't say, 'Judy, could you come and answer some questions in a press conference?' They just said you're doing this, and they led me up to the stage and did that," she remembers.

The talk show and news circuits took her to New York and other places she had never seen in America. Her U.S. tour got even more miles when the Chinese team came to the United States in 1972 to reciprocate the Americans' visit for a two-week, traveling exhibition tour. It culminated with the teams going to the White House to meet President Nixon, who had a particular interest to get his foot into the door with China. His wheels didn't just start turning with the Chinese visit into the United States, but while the Americans were still in China.

In a transcript from a tape between Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, on April 13, 1971, Nixon said he had long-term plans for dealing with China, but wanted to be sly and not look as if he were exploiting the occasion.

"I deal with the China things for long-range reasons—very, very important reasons. Now, that brings us to the present thing: Ping-Pong. It's very important now—we're going to have another announcement tomorrow, which you should fill John in on—it's very important now that we, while we want to get every dividend we can on this, that we not appear to exploit it," Nixon said.

"Now, the reasoning is that, much as we want the publicity, we're playing for much higher stakes. We're playing for much higher stakes with the Russians—and this thing is sending them right up the wall, the Ping-Pong team," Nixon added. "And we also are playing for high stakes with the Chinese."

Nixon said in the released tapes that he hoped table tennis visits opened the lines of communication, but also wanted it to appear the Americans initiated the diplomacy.

At the time, there was no U.S. embassy in China, and that left little to no communication back and forth between Washington and Beijing.

Nixon said the Chinese had been "dropping little hints around the world at the various embassies, and for months we've been expecting some thaw" in the rather frigid Cold War. The U.S. president went on to say the Chinese were highly "unpredictable" whereas the Soviet Union was rather predictable.

"We didn't expect—but I suppose we were looking more to the fact that the thaw might come in Warsaw," Nixon said to Kissinger. "But the Chinese, with their usual subtlety, had the thaw—we'll call it a 'thaw' for lack of something else; the press will all write it that way anyway—it comes in another area. Right?"

Kissinger agreed, and then Nixon continued.

"You never can predict how the Chinese are. They're much less predictable than the Russians. The Russians are predictable. The Chinese are not predictable," Nixon said on the tape. "Because they are Chinese, not because they're Communists. The Russians are more predictable because they're doctrinaire, but you can goddamn near tell how the Russians will react to the Chinese Ping-Pong thing. I can almost tell you what [Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly] Dobrynin will say when he comes back—and particularly on this announcement."

Nixon was already out of office by the time China and the U.S. established official diplomatic ties in 1979.

Bochenski, meanwhile, kept playing table tennis and still operates a shop in Oregon called Paddle Palace. Bochenski says the table used during the barracks scene of Forrest Gump was bought from her store for the 1994 movie.

In 1997, Bochenski went back to China for a 25th anniversary of the Chinese coming to the United States. She said things couldn't have been more different in China than they were in the early 1970s.

"The 25th anniversary trip to China was really night and day from 1971," she said. "The people looked different. They behaved differently. Everything was different. For example, in 1971, people were so isolated.

"The average people had no information coming from the outside world. Whereas 25 years later, there was information coming from the outside world. We stayed in hotel that had a television, we could watch table tennis on TV. And everywhere we went people were talking on cell phones, and that really struck me at the time because in 1997, we didn't have, I didn't have a cell phone, we didn't have that many cell phones—we had landlines. But in China, they kind of jumped from no telephones to cell phones."

The table tennis crowds were vastly different, too. In 1971, those in the 20,000-seat stadium seemed to clap in unison and stay silent in unison. In 1997, it was pandemonium as the fans wildly cheered—all while wearing colorful clothing and having a freer spirit.

"The audience 25 years later was just like an American basketball crowd watching a big game. There were kids up on platforms standing up, and this was actually part of the international challenge where some good international players came and played some of the Chinese stars."

Bochenski went back in 2009 to commemorate 30 years of China-U.S. relations. She wanted to go back for a 50th anniversary, but the ongoing COVID pandemic has put that on hold.

Beijing in 2022 is scheduled to host the Winter Olympics, which would make it the first city in the world to host both a Winter Olympics and a Summer Olympics (2008).

However, there's a groundswell of American politicians who are calling for a boycott of the Beijing Games. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) strongly opposes a boycott, as do the governing bodies for both Canada and Great Britain.

Bochenski has seen how sports can bring countries together, and that same thing should happen next year in Beijing.

"I feel like we really need to have people-to-people exchanges. And plus the athletes, American athletes and athletes all over the world, they work hard for four years," Bochenski said. "The Olympics happen only once every four years, and they really work hard for that.

"It's not fair to the athletes, but it's also really important to have sports exchanges, to try to understand each other on a personal level, on a sports level outside of politics. We need to find common ground before we can solve the big problems in the world."

Bochenski unwittingly went into China as a teenager to become a diplomat with her table tennis teammates in 1971, and she's still proud to be a part of that "Ping Pong Diplomacy." Despite playing more pickleball these days, she remains a big part of the table tennis world. And she'll always cherish, and appreciate, her time as a "ping pong diplomat."

"Yes, I will always be the girl who went to China."