TES-D pilot: International Table Tennis Foundation leads cross-continental celebrations of ping pong diplomacy

By International Table Tennis Foundation

The International Table Tennis Foundation encouraged a mass celebrations of table tennis for ping pong diplomacy (GPPD) initiatives across five continents as part of its TES-D pilot actions. It promoted diversity and best practice by selecting and supporting 5 promoters per continent to deliver role model examples. ITTF raises awareness on ping pong diplomacy as an accessible tool for all and underline its ability to be used as a tool to advocate for the UN SDG Goal 16 – peace, justice, and strong institutions and significantly reduces all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere. 

A total of 70 applicants from across 5 continents submitted proposals and recommendations to support the planning and implementation of the pilot, with 7 applicants from Europe. Proposals were assessed and best practices were identified on the basis of their understanding of diplomacy, the problem/conflict to be resolved, and the active use of sport (Table tennis) as a tool for diplomacy. Following a thorough assessment process including senior management and dedicated project managers for the Pilot, a total of 25 initiatives were selected for implementation on World Table Tennis Day (6 April) 2021.

With regard to the target group, the understanding of diplomacy and specifically the use of sport as a diplomatic tool varied from non-existent to advanced, which was anticipated at the start of this Pilot. However, the wide range of problems identified – ranging from religious disputes to geopolitical tensions -  were extremely helpful in ensuring that the Pilot and its activities were able to touch upon a variety of situations where sport can be used as a catalyst for social inclusion and integration by virtue of intentionally using it as a diplomatic tool. The target group remained thoroughly engaged throughout the process, including before, during and after the grant-making stage which is often where interest can dwindle. The target group was forthcoming with their ideas and suggestions to maximise the impact of table tennis as a tool for diplomacy and followed up actively by submitting specific exercises for a specialised handbook.

Some minor changes in timeline and scope of the specific community level projects were necessary to ensure that the impact of the Pilot was prioritised over compliance. More crucially, the decision to expand the scope of “diplomacy” to include community level disputes and conflicts was made slightly later in the Pilot process, to move away from a purely geopolitical understanding of diplomacy. This is especially key for the organisations (and especially charities) working in the sport for development sector as they are not operating in the role of international actors, but as development organisations at the grassroots. This change in approach helped garner stronger support from the MAs and implementers as they found this understanding of diplomacy much more relatable.

Statement, Saurabh Mishra, ITTF Foundation – Programmes Manager: 
In the future, we would like to make the consultation process more diverse by deliberately prioritising some regions over others to ensure equitable participation in such projects. Instead of an open call, a staggered call for applications across different regions would potentially bear better results and help identify a wider diversity of best practices. While communication via emails and social media definitely helped garner interest, it was dedicated emails to a pre-existing network of implementers/promoters which really helped ensure large scale participation. Additionally, a decision to host briefing/capacity building webinars was effective to ensure that the purpose of the Pilot was clear to each individual implementer, thus leading to a more coherent approach to implementation.

A key positive was how diverse the different community level initiatives were, and how they went beyond our planned scope of ping pong diplomacy to include some very innovative approaches to the use of table tennis for diplomacy and social inclusion. One negative was limited participation from some of the regions, due to language barriers, infrastructural (such as ICT) limitations, and limited awareness. To bridge the latter, we have developed a table tennis for development handbook, which includes a specialised module on ping pong diplomacy, to be made available free of cost.

ITTF pilot was built around the sport of table tennis, which can act as an extremely malleable tool due to its adaptability which allows it to be introduced in a variety of contexts. The sport is easy to understand, accessible, and engaging. More importantly, the premise is literally to bring multiple adversaries/opponents around a table in order to engage through a productive, repetitive activity, which meshes well with the overall theoretical idea of diplomacy. Over time, there were the diplomatic applications of table tennis go from strength to strength, starting from the storied history of the China-US ping pong diplomacy which started in 1971, to a wide range of grassroots sport diplomacy activities more than 50 years later. Optimism is there about the future of ping pong diplomacy owing to the innovations there are at the community level across a large number of countries and communities, and more importantly in least developed/developing country contexts where despite limited access to equipment, the principles behind ping pong diplomacy are being understood and applied to suit the specific context.

In addition to targeted investment in ping pong diplomacy projects, additional capacity building and knowledge sharing is required to ensure we continue to make impact at scale. As such, the creation of the PPD toolkit, and the module on PPD as part of the TT4D Handbook should help with sustainability of the initiative as these resources do not need to be developed in future and are living documents which can be updated through the addition of best practices. 

Where to now?
The pilot has confirmed some of our theoretical understanding of how diplomacy as a concept needs to be widened in order to include challenges at the grassroots, and how the impact of sport as a diplomatic tool is currently being limited by an insistence on approaching conflict from a geopolitical standpoint. We have uncovered a variety of challenges which are well suited for a sport-based intervention, through intentionally designed sessions/exercises using table tennis.

Recommendations for new Sport Diplomats and their organisations:

  • Include the target groups as part of the initial design and planning phase
  • Collect regular data through consultation with the target groups
  • Ensure a strong legacy be collating best practices and making them readily accessible
  • Include socio-economic conflicts at the grassroots within the scope of diplomatic challenges
  • Do not focus on the technical/sport aspect of sport diplomacy, but on the “non-sport” characteristics which are key for achieving diplomatic resolutions, such as communication, partnership, and a shared understanding of issues.

The Towards an EU Sport Diplomacy project talked to International Table Tennis Foundation Director Leandro Olvech about the foundation - which is connected to the International Table Tennis Federation - its work and its new sport diplomacy pilot. 

Posted on 17/11/2022 by International Table Tennis Foundation