In April 1971, the U.S. table tennis team was in Japan for the World Championships and star player Glenn Cowan missed the team bus after practice. The top player on the Chinese team, Zhuang Zedong, waved Cowan onto his team’s bus and gave him a ride to the hotel. When the Chinese premier heard about the friendly gesture, he invited the U.S. team to play exhibition matches in his country. The players, along with four officials, two spouses and 10 journalists, became the first American citizens to set foot in China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
More than 40 years later, we were reminded of the power of sport in breaking down barriers at the Olympic Games in London. Every four years, the world comes together on the playing fields, in the pool and at the track for competition. People around the world have shared the privilege of witnessing world records, athletic courage, resilience and dignity in winning and losing. Sport, like no other human endeavor, transcends the differences of culture, language, political systems and values. It can unite us in a way that is personal and respectful.
Myriad examples in London
The London Games were full of inspirational examples, such as Liu Xiang, the Chinese hurdler whose injured ankle gave out for a second straight Games but was helped off the track by a Brit and a Spaniard; South African double-amputee runner Oscar Pistorius, who traded race bibs with able-bodied world record holder Kirani James of Grenada after finishing last in his semifinal heat; or Sarah Attar (track) and Wojdan Shaherkhani (Judo), the first female athletes Saudi Arabia had ever allowed to participate in the Olympics.
These athletes, and countless others, will go on to be ambassadors of not only their sport, but also of their country and their people. The promotion of values through sport, known as sport diplomacy, historically has been an effective way to bridge cultures, find common ground and share values. The exchange offers a way for the people of both countries to develop a more friendly relationship on a person-to-person level.
No need to wait four more years
As the glow of the Summer Olympics fade, and we look forward to future sporting events, we must not forget how much more can be done to spread understanding through sports. The world doesn’t need to wait four more years to engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about culture and values.
Joan Brzezinski is the executive director of the China Center and the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota. The university opened the American Cultural Center for Sport, funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State, in Tianjin, China, in March 2012. The center will use the medium of sport as a way to bridge cultures and share U.S. values with the Chinese people. The views presented here are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the university.
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