In the 1970s, people called it Ping Pong diplomacy.

Then President Richard Nixon had visited China, opening the door to talks with the communist country. A series of visits centering around Chinese Table Tennis stars was the next step in relations between the two countries.

In a round-about way, that effort has led to the 2019 International Ping Pong Fit Festival on Labor Day weekend at the Long Beach Convention Center. That festival, in turn, could mean Ping Pong tables all over Long Beach and a designation as the first Ping Pong Friendly City, according to Barry Sedlik, CEO of Global Creative Cities Coalition (GC3), the festival presenter. 

"In China, table tennis is the national sport," Sedlik said. "They venerate their top stars, and everyone plays. I mean everyone… It's good for you; hand-eye coordination, cardio and more. So over time, I thought maybe we were missing something in the U.S."

Sedlik already had ties with China, arranging vacation trips for Chinese officials and dignitaries. It soon became clear that the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda was a preferred destination.

And the connection to Ping Pong diplomacy was born.

That, Sedlik said, led to discussions with a trade association for sports equipment manufacturers, then the launch of GC3.

"We aim to make Ping Pong tables available throughout every city in America, just like every city in China," Sedlik said. "We want people to know that Ping Pong is a sport for everyone, regardless of age, income, or physical abilities, and it’s fun."

Another benefit, Sedlik said, is getting children away from their electronics and interacting with others. And down the road, a smart phone "dating" app to allow players to set up games is in the works.

His vision is to find sponsors to provide Ping Pong tables to cities' recreation programs, nonprofits like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs and more. Long Beach, with its strong ties to China through the Long Beach-Qingdao Association, a sister city group with a long history of cooperation, is the perfect place to launch that effort, Sedlik said.

He added that he had been encouraged by preliminary talks with the city and leaders of the local YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs. His group created a partnership with the LA Open Table Tennis Tournament Association, and timed the first festival to include the association's ninth annual championship tournament. Sedlik said some of China's top players, including Olympic team hopefuls, are expected to compete.

The two-day festival, Saturday, Aug. 31 and Sunday, Sept. 1, will be free to spectators. It will include celebrity and community Ping Pong tournaments, games, prizes and cultural displays.

The LA Open also will be at the Convention Center, and is expected to draw up to 400 of the top players in the world to compete for the top U.S. cash prizes of the year. Tickets to that tournament will be on sale at the Convention Center, and range in cost from $20 for a Saturday ticket to $200 for a VIP package.

For more information about the festival, go to pingpongfit.com. For more about the tournament, go to laopentt.com.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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