Japan’s Ai Fukuhara and Tomokazu Harimoto will take part in a mixed table tennis friendly later this month to promote dialogue between North and South Korea and their neighboring countries, the International Olympic Committee announced Thursday.
Fukuhara, who won team silver at the 2012 London Games, and Harimoto, 14, who is the youngest player to claim an International Table Tennis Federation World Tour men’s singles title, will take part in the friendly on Olympic Day, June 23, in Lausanne, Switzerland along with top players from North and South Korea, and China.
(Fukuhara waves at a parade for Japan’s Rio Olympic medalists in Tokyo on Oct. 7, 2016)
Following talks with Kim Jong Un at which the North Korean leader committed to his country’s athletes participating in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games and 2022 Beijing Winter Games, the IOC invited delegations from the two Koreas, China, and Japan to participate in the event aimed at promoting peace through sport.
“This meeting is another step by Olympic sport to promote dialogue on and around the Korean peninsula,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in an announcement.
“Japan and China will be the next hosts of the Olympic Games and Olympic Winter Games, and the exhibition match (can) give us a glimpse of how sport can unite and make a contribution to changing the world.”
(Harimoto became Japan’s youngest national table tennis singles champion in Tokyo on Jan. 21)
On Tuesday, Bach announced that the IOC is working on a special program to help North Korean athletes participate in the next two Olympics, as well as the 2018 and 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires and Lausanne, respectively.
At the Pyeongchang Winter Games in March, the two Koreas marched together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony and competed as a joint team in women’s ice hockey. It was the first time a unified Korean team competed at an Olympics.
“The joint march at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 showed the world the role that the Olympic Movement can play in opening the door to peace,” Bach said. “Sport must continue to build bridges and show what it can do to bring people together.”
The event harks back to the “ping-pong diplomacy” strategy which helped thaw American and Chinese relations in the early 1970s, when American players, who were competing at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, were invited to compete in friendly matches hosted by China.
The exchange opened up Sino-American communications following nearly 20 years of economic and diplomatic silence between the two countries, and led to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China the following year.
Table tennis made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Seoul Olympics. Fukuhara, Sayaka Hirano, and Kasumi Ishikawa won Japan’s first Olympic medal in the sport, a silver in the women’s team event, in London in 2012.