In world of sports, borders don’t existThirty-two years ago, the phrase “ping-pong diplomacy” was born. China which never had invited any American athletes, let alone tourists, invited the U.S. table tennis team for a friendly, sending a signal across the bamboo curtain that a new dialogue was about to happen.
The next year, U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China. Sports had served as the extended arm of diplomacy. Since then, the world has changed at such a rate that a century from now, people will wonder, “What was all that about?”
Turn on the TV today and we can see who has quietly conquered the world. From Berlin to China, NBA games are broadcasted around the globe. Last year’s NBA All-Star game was broadcasted in 12 languages, including Chinese and Russian.
Globalization at its best? Perhaps. People around the world have been protesting against globalization, but no one’s shouting, “Go home, Shaq!” People may balk at McDonald’s, but the NBA, or any other sport that provides excitement and displays athleticism at its best, can penetrate borders and go farther than the strongest army in the world.
Why not use sports again to defuse the Korean Peninsula’s volatile situation? Maybe it’s a crazy idea but surely cheaper than a cash-for-summit one.
South Korea and North Korea have been staging friendly exhibitions for years in soccer and basketball. A new kind of ping-pong diplomacy could work here for both North Korea and the United States.
Yet there would be some obstacles. The North will hardly agree to an event in which it is likely to draw the shorter end against U.S. “imperialists.” The U.S. would not entertain the idea of holding back to let its opponent save face.
North Korea just got its new sports complex built by South Korea’s Hyundai, where a friendly basketball game took place recently between the two countries. So for once we don’t need to worry about facilities or lack thereof.
The North also has Lee Myeong-hun, the world’s tallest basketball player, at 2.35 meters (7 foot 9 inches) tall. Although his bid to play for the NBA failed a couple of years ago, even in an isolated state such as North Korea there seems to be some interest in the NBA.
Imagine Vince Carter taking off at the baseline, doing a 360-degree spin and dunking a ball in front of Pyeongyang’s citizens who have heard so much about Americans but have probably seen very few, if any. Wouldn’t that be worth it?
And what about those real cheerleaders? Maybe the illusive Kim Jong-il will come out in person to see for himself, no?
Well, we all know that a simple thing like relocating an NBA game can be impossible when politics are involved.
Had it not been for politics, Lee Myeong-hun might be playing alongside Yao Ming, the Chinese star center for the Houston Rockets, right now.
As it is, my idea probably won’t go beyond this column. But who knows?
Thirty-two years ago, nobody thought that the NBA would play in China either.
by Brian Lee