Ping Pong Player Who Helped Bridge U.S.-China Diplomacy in 1971 Says ‘Nobody Should Boycott’ the 2022 Olympics

Sean Neumann
·5 min read

Rick Bowmer/AP/Shutterstock Judy Bochenski

A boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is not the right way to call attention to China's mounting human rights violation, says one of the first U.S. athletes to ever play in the country.

"Nobody should boycott the Olympics for political reasons," says Judy Hoarfrost, née Bochenski, a former member of the young 1971 "Ping Pong Diplomacy" team, who made history by accepting an invite from the then-Communist country.

Hoarfrost, who was 15 years old at the time, was one of nine young U.S. ping pong players invited to China for an eight-city tour, after the American and Chinese teams became friendly during an international tournament in Japan.

Before then, no American — not even a diplomat — had stepped foot in mainland China in roughly 20 years. The monumental trip, often credited with helping "thaw" the Cold War, marks its 50th anniversary on Saturday and comes amid new tensions between the U.S. and China.

"It's distressing," Hoarfrost, now 65 and married, tells PEOPLE about the continued rift. "We really need to have common ground and work together in order to solve our problems."

Rick Bowmer/AP/Shutterstock Judy Bochenski

Rick Bowmer/AP/Shutterstock Judy Bochenski

The USA Table Tennis Hall of Famer laments that the world has "huge challenges" at the moment. And she sees sports as a way to connect with other countries, cultures, and people, to help resolve them.

"We have the pandemic, we have global health — what affects health in one part of the world affects the health of us all — and we have the environment," says Hoarfrost, whose journey helped pave the way for a budding relationship between the two countries.

Back in 1971, President Richard Nixon eased travel bans and trade regulations on China in the middle of the team's trip. He visited the country himself one year later, becoming the first U.S. president to ever do so.

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"Being in China in 1971 was a unique experience," Hoarfrost reflects to PEOPLE. "It was the midst of the cultural revolution, so they were undergoing a great deal of change and turmoil. What we saw were thousands of signs, political signs in Chinese characters all over all the buildings, everywhere you go. And there were photos, portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong on all the buildings."

There were "not a lot of cars" and "thousands of bicycles all over the street," Hoarfrost says, recalling that the tallest building she saw in Beijing must have been four stories tall — something "so different" from how she's seen the country develop over the course of eight more reunion trips back there.

However, it's what's the same that's bothering Hoarfrost now.

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As geopolitical tensions have been on the rise again, there have been murmurs of countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and more entertaining a joint boycott of the 2022 Olympic Games.

This is in response to mounting human rights violations in China that have been condemned across the globe — from alleged genocide of the Uyghurs ethnic minority group to anti-democracy crackdowns in what's supposed to be an autonomous Hong Kong.

A recent BBC report from February says independent estimates show more than 1 million men and women — mostly of the predominantly Muslim and indigenous Uyghurs population— are being detained in Chinese "re-education" camps, from where harrowing stories of rape and violence have emerged.

"China uses coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month.

Bettmann/ Getty From left: 1971 U.S. Table Tennis team members Olga Soltesez, Judy Bochenski, as well as Madeleine Buben, and Connie Sweeris

Greg Baker/AP/Shutterstock Left to right: Rufford Harrison, and players Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost, Connie Sweeris, and her husband Dell Sweeris, who played against the Chinese when they toured the U.S. in 1972

A State Department spokesperson then said earlier this month that "part of our review of those Olympics and our thinking will involve close consultations with partners and allies around the world," according to ESPN.

The White House has since indicated there's no plan at the moment to boycott the 2022 games, but human rights groups have increasingly called for the U.S. and other countries not to go, according to the outlet.

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Hoarfrost, reflecting back on the impact her team's trip had on bridging geopolitical divides, says she feels not going would be the wrong decision.

"It's true that we do need to spotlight any violations of human rights," she says. "We need to spotlight that, wherever it's happening in the world: anywhere in our country, other countries, China, everywhere."

Hoarfrost adds: "We need to all work to correct injustices and correct the things that are counterproductive and harmful, but I don't think that boycotting the Olympics is a way to go about that."