Better Relations Through Sport

China has come a long way since Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit. This was plainly evident during the first weekend of the Beijing Olympics.

Watching the Olympic opening ceremonies Friday night with Chinese and American friends at a small gathering at my home, China's pride and passion was perfectly encapsulated by an awesome display. Not resorting to mechanical devices like floats or puppets to fill the stadium, Chinese organizers utilized China's greatest natural resource: large numbers of people working in uniform, lock-step conformity. Contentious issues, like the haze covering Beijing for much of the week, or rising violence in western Xinjiang province, were far from the thoughts of my guests.

However, we could not help but think about how far China has come since President Nixon's visit in 1972. The heads of state, captains of industry and other guests in the stadium were not suffering through a socialist extravaganza worthy of Pyongyang's mass games, but rather witnessing a display of logistical precision expressing national pride in Chinese culture and its relatively recent engagement with the rest of the world.

Likewise, the U.S.-China basketball game two days later was hardly a redux of the proxy conflict of the cold war. Sportsmanship and star power set the stage for a high-scoring match, replete with trick plays worthy of an NBA all-star game. President Bush, sitting next to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (and Henry Kissinger a row behind them) anchored a global audience that included more than 500 million Chinese viewers.

A polite crowd-no banners, no hectoring-held aloft a few Chinese flags. Calm fans dispelled fears that crazed Chinese nationalists would accept nothing other than complete domination and victory at every round. The fruits of Dr. Kissinger's efforts, with their genesis in ping-pong diplomacy, have reached a pinnacle this week.

If U.S.-China relations need a metaphor, the atmosphere at the basketball game featuring heroes Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming might be a good one. Mutual acceptance of well-defined rules, cordiality, clean play and all spectators' admiration for great plays should define the future for both countries in their dealings with the other.


Drew Thompson is the Director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.