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US wins at Pingpong diplomacy in Qatar

By Michael Casey
AP Sports Writer / November 22, 2011
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—In a 21st-century spin on pingpong diplomacy, the United States and Russia and North and South Korea paired up in a one-day table tennis tournament on Tuesday aimed at promoting peace between rival nations.

American Lily Zhang and Anna Tikhomirova of Russia beat Kim Kyung-Ah of South Korea and Kim Hye Song of North Korea 3-2 in the final. On the men's side, North Korea's Kim Hyok Bong and South Korea's Ryu Seung-Min beat Yiyong Fan of the United States and Grigory Vlasov of Russia 3-0 to win the final.

"This event may mark a new era for pingpong diplomacy, or in today's lingo pingpong Diplomacy version 2.0," International Table Tennis Federation President Adham Sharara said.

Other teams included China-Qatar, India-Pakistan and France-Japan for the doubles event sponsored by Monaco-based Peace and Sport. Iran was initially part of the 10-nation tournament but withdrew last month without explanation.

Qatar has been targeting sport as a vehicle to showcase its global aspirations. The Gulf nation will host soccer's 2022 World Cup and is bidding for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Ian Marshall, a spokesman for the ITTF, said the tournament had already reaped dividends. The North and South Koreans spent the past two days together, including at a welcome dinner on Monday.

"They met Monday morning and met with local children," Marshall said. "They talked to each other and were the very best of friends, which is what we are trying to achieve here."

However, there are lingering suspicions between the U.S. and China over the latter's growing economic clout.

But relations between the two world powers have improved markedly from 40 years ago when "pingpong diplomacy" was first used. Nine Americans played against their much stronger rivals on Chinese soil -- an event that helped usher in better relations and a visit by President Nixon to China.

"It has always been my dream that our sport is used in peace initiatives bringing together representatives from different countries and have them play together side by side in an atmosphere of peace and understanding," Sharara said

The tournament also fits into Qatar's efforts to raise its diplomatic profile. It already has hosted talks to ease conflicts in Lebanon and Sudan's Darfur region, and is leading Arab League efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria.

Now, it hopes table tennis can ease tensions between some of the world's greatest rivals.

India and Pakistan have come close to war several times, especially over the disputed Kashmir region.

Sadia Falak Sher of Pakistan and Poulomi Ghatak of India lost to Cao Zhen of China and Ai Mohamed of Qatar in the quarterfinals. But for Ghatak, losing made little difference.

"We played great together, we played in synchrony and it was a pleasure," Ghatak said. "It was for me a lifetime experience that I will never forget. It is a question of peace and love. All countries need to understand cooperation and we will live in a better world."

The two Koreas have been in a technical state of war since the 1950s and territorial disputes still flare, including two military attacks on South Korea last year.

Relations between Pakistan and America have soured over U.S. drone attacks and the secret mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

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Follow Michael Casey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mcasey1

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