In 1971, diplomatic relations between China and the US renewed through ping-pong as it was the biggest news story at the time in the US. In 1972, the Chinese team visited the US and in sold-out arenas throughout the US, the Chinese National Team players played exhibition and friendship matches against US national team players. There was extensive news coverage including features on the covers of major US publications such as Time Magazine. Someone told me USA Table Tennis got tens of thousands of phone calls during this time but with no infrastructure of ping-pong clubs and not too many places to play, the best possible free marketing was for the most part wasted in terms of growing the sport.
I was lucky to take part in the historic 25th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy held exactly 20 years back in 1997 at Stanford University Maples Pavilion in front of about 2,000 fans. Multiple-time Olympic and World Champions Deng Yaping and Liu Guoliang took part in the event at Stanford to play against top US players. Deng Yaping was as famous in China in the 1990s as Michael Jordan was here and was a household name and considered by many to be the greatest women’s player of all-time. Ding Song, who was World Men’s Team Champion and the best defensive player in the world, was my opponent. I thought it was supposed to be a friendship match but I didn’t sense much friendliness as he ripped me! Sweden led by Jan-Ove Waldner had broken the Chinese dominance in the sport by winning the Worlds in 1989, 1991, and 1993. In the 1995 Worlds held in China, Ding Song won the critical 3rd match against Sweden’s Peter Karlsson in the men’s team final to help China regain the World title. I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad as he ripped World and European Champion Karlsson too! In 1997 in Sweden, I got to practice with Karlsson and did multi-ball with him and he helped my backhand. He likely had the best backhand in the world at the time so it was good to get advice from him! When I talked to another one of the Swedish World Champions in Sweden on the same trip two years after that Worlds, he said people are as crazy about table-tennis in China as Brazil is about soccer and US is about basketball and the atmosphere for the matches was incredible.
Here’s the final point of the critical 3rd match that Ding Song of China won against Peter Karlsson of Sweden in the 1995 World Team Final that sent the home capacity crowd into a frenzy. China won the match 3-2 to regain the World Men’s Team title which was big, big news in China as Sweden had won the prior 3 World titles.
Here’s the full match between Ding Song and Peter Karlsson: