Canberra Table Tennis
Enticed by the invitation promising "Ping-Pong Diplomacy comes to The Great Hall" we beetled along to Thursday's event at Parliament House. There in the dignified gloom of that great space a blue table tennis table was brightly, dramatically illuminated.
We wondered, as the occasion unfolded and as stirring table tennis was played by lithe young male and female ping-pong virtuosos of six nations, if we might be almost the only soul there old enough to remember when and why the famous expression "ping-pong diplomacy" was invented.
Chinese ping-pong propaganda art, 1972. Photo: Shanghai Propaganda Poster Centre.
Back to that history lesson in a moment, but first the explanation that Thursday's occasion, attended by dignified ambassadors, high commissioners and other diplomats galore and by someone dressed in a cow suit, * was the Fifth Annual Hyundai Bennelong Cup Table Tennis Tournament. It featured some of the world's best professional table tennis players from Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and New Zealand. And if Australian table tennis does have its own obnoxious Nick Kyrgios then it doesn't appear to be Wade Townsend who completed his short match (first to 11 and he won 11-9) with Japan's Kana Mistukoyo without so much as a scowl let alone any audible obscenity, equipment abuse or references to his opponent's girlfriend. This was a relief because there were children, the choir of Kingsford Smith school, in the room.
Tennis legend (of the wooden-racquet era) and now federal member for Bennelong, John Alexander, explained to the audience (which now included a creature alarmingly half man/half cow because the man in the suit had removed his cow head)* what the Bennelong Cup event was. He said it had commenced in 2011 as a schools program that eventually, with the help of sponsors Hyundai, had seen every school in the electorate of Bennelong blessed with a table tennis table.
Mao-Nix Ping-Pong Set, 1972, exploiting United States president Richard Nixon's "ping-pong diplomacy" visit to China.
Next, the children's choir trilled that green and optimistic anthem, I Am The Earth, imagining a supportive dialogue between our dear little planet and the planet's children promising to look after it and to learn from it.
Opening the friendly matches between nations Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that "sport had played a unique role in Australian national life. It has shaped our identity. It has been an opportunity to showcase our national character and values on the world stage".
As she trundled out these clunking cliches this reporter's thoughts flew to questions of whether or not Nick Kyrgios and Mitchell Starc can be said to be showcasing our national character and values on a world stage when they behave badly. Starc has just been fined for throwing a ball, in anger, at an innocent New Zealander. And perhaps Starc's fit of pique really was an expression of our national character (for Australians can have a cranky side). But of course whenever politicians make these cliched sorts of connections between Australian spirt and Australian character they are thinking of our sweet Saint Ken (Rosewall). They don't make role models like that any more.
And so to the keenly-anticipated table tennis. Played at its best, as it was on Thursday, table tennis is a wondrous sport, involving skills that make onlookers gasp with appreciation.
For this short tournament and to honour the Anzac tradition on all of our minds this year, Australia and New Zealand played as one team just as we did in tennis in the years immediately before the Great War. It was as Australasia that Australians first played in a winning Davis Cup team when Australia beat the USA in January 1912 in Christchurch.
Thursday's first match, as mentioned above, featured Australian Wade Townsend, playing for Australasia. He and his willowy young Japanese opponent fell into lightning-fast rat-a-rat rallies. It was good-humoured match, punctuated with smiles.
Neither youngster will have known what ping-pong diplomacy was but we could have told them that it was an early 1970s exchange of table tennis players between the hitherto hostile United States and China. On April 10, 1971, and at the invitation of China, nine American players and their entourage went to Beijing. They were the first Americans to go there since 1949. They did some touring and played some diplomatically amiable table tennis.
This adventure thawed away a lot of the frostiness in the two nations' relationship and paved the way for US President Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon to make his historic visit to Mao's Beijing in February of 1972.