Korean teams unite at table tennis world championships

The odd sports of ESPN’s ‘The Ocho’
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Early morning events on "The Ocho" this year included the World Championship of Ping-Pong.

Though there was no victory to cheer, there was still plenty to celebrate as a unified Korean table tennis team made history and provided another symbolic moment in the continued rapprochement between two countries still technically at war.

North and South Korea were due to play each other in the quarterfinals of the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Halmstad, Sweden, but instead of going head-to-head decided to form a unified team.

It was a move approved by organizers, with Thomas Weikert, president of the sport’s governing body, ITTF, telling reporters: “When I informed the board of directors about this development, the unified team received a standing ovation from the delegation and showed their sign of support to this historic move.”

The Korean team went on to lose 3-0 to Japan in Friday’s semifinal, but the result seemed to matter little as players from the two countries — Kim Song I (PRK), Yang Haeun (KOR) and Jeon Jinhee (KOR) — embraced after defeat.

The women won bronze since the tournament rewards two bronze medalists and has no third-place game.

Sport has, throughout the years, helped ease tensions on the peninsula and this year in particular it is sport which has given the two countries reason to talk again following the escalating hostility in 2017 over Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles program.

It was February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea which underpinned the first meaningful dialogue between the neighboring states in over two years.

For the first time in 11 years, athletes from North and South Korea walked in unison at the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games, while it was at the PyeongChang Games, dubbed the “Peace Olympics,” that the unified women’s ice hockey team made its Olympic debut.

Relations between two countries, divided since 1953, have continued to improve since the Olympics.

During a historic summit in April, North and South agreed to hold talks over denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and bring a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which ended in armistice.

Following the success of the summit, planning is now underway for US President Donald Trump to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un within a month to further discuss the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Table tennis also has a history in diplomacy.

At the height of the Cold War, a group of ping pong players became the first Americans to visit Communist China, an occasion which is often credited for thawing relations between two countries that had not at that time been in contact for 22 years.

In 1972, a year after the so-called “ping pong diplomacy,” Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit the People’s Republic of China.