One of China’s most famed Table Tennis champions, who played a key role in the ‘Ping Pong diplomacy’ that paved the way for normalising relations with the U.S., died here on Sunday. He was 72.

Zhuang Zedong was a sportsman famed in China in the 1960s for his unmatched skill on the Ping Pong table. Yet, it was off the court where unexpected events ensured that Mr. Zhuang’s legacy would extend far beyond the realm of sport.

Détente through sport

Mr. Zhuang, a multiple-time world Table Tennis champion in the 1960s, had a chance meeting with American player Glenn Cowan at the World Table Tennis championship in Nagoya, Japan in 1971 that would eventually pave the way for taking ties between the countries out of the deep freeze.

When Cowan missed his team’s bus and ended up with the Chinese players, Mr. Zhuang reportedly went against the advice of his team mates by greeting the American at a time of hostility in ties.

“Ten minutes passed, but nobody dared pay any attention to him,” Mr. Zhuang recalled in a 2009 interview with China Radio International. “But I thought he was only an athlete, he was not a politician. I should go and greet him.”

News of their meeting made headlines in China and went back to Mao Zedong, leading to an invitation for nine American players to visit China that same year — the first official visit in decades. The following year, President Richard Nixon visited China, with ties eventually normalised in 1979.

Once hailed by Mao and the Communist Party, Mr. Zhuang fell out of favour after the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Mr. Zhuang’s good relations with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was disgraced in 1976 for her role in leading the Cultural Revolution, saw him being investigated and jailed for four years.

“To protect myself, I made mistakes during the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Zhuang admitted in the interview. “I treated some people unfairly…That’s why though I was later removed from my position of the Sports Minister and put into a four year detention, I never blamed life.”

Rehabilitation

Mr. Zhuang was rehabilitated in the 1980s, when his fortunes changed along with those of his country.

Returning to Beijing, he was appointed as a coach for the youth team.

“I’m absolutely lucky to have grown with my country,” he said in the interview with CRI. “There were ups and downs for the country, and I myself experienced exactly the same. If it was not the times and the country, I couldn’t be who I am and have achieved what I have. Now, the whole country is thriving, and I’m also seeking to contribute my talent more. One of the most rewarding parts of my life is coaching little kids to play Ping Pong.”

Mr. Zhuang recently suffered from illness following a long battle with cancer, Xinhua news agency reported. Mr. Zhuang said in a recent interview he wanted “history to remember me as an athlete, not a minister, not anything else”.

Life-long love

“My career was always about playing table tennis,” he said. “Ping Pong has always been my life-long love.”

More In: International | News