Plenty of athletes win trophies or medals, but only a handful become political figures with global sway. Below we list six athletes who have had an impact on international relations.
In 1938, American boxer Joe Louis took two minutes to knock out German Max Schmeling. It must have been a satisfying victory for Louis: Two years earlier, he had lost to Schmeling after 12 rounds. Plus, Schmeling’s Nazi Party publicist had said that no black man could ever defeat the German boxer. It was certainly a satisfying victory for the U.S., which, at that point, was still mired in the Great Depression. When the U.S. entered the war three years later, Louis again became a symbol of American power. The boxer appeared on recruiting posters with the quote, “We’ll win, because we're on God's side.”
The most famous (and outspoken) boxer in history was never one to shy away from a fight. When Ali was drafted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam, he refused to go, saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, but became a symbol for the growing anti-Vietnam movement.
Glenn Cowan and Zhuang Zedong
After missing his bus at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship, Glenn Cowan hitched a ride with the Chinese team. Ten minutes into the ride, the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong presented him with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains. Cowan later reciprocated the gift with a t-shirt. This modest exchange was the beginning of what the media would come to call “ping-pong diplomacy.” Four days later, the American team was invited to come to China. Accepting the invitation, it became the first U.S. sports delegation to enter the country since 1949. A year later, then-U.S.-president Richard Nixon made his famous visit to China.
Rohan Bopana and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi
The doubles partners, one Indian and one Pakistani, received plenty of off-court attention when they showed up at Wimbledon in 2010 with the words “Stop War, Start Tennis” written on their tracksuits. It was their way of thinking about the “big picture” beyond tennis. "It is the beauty of sport that it's above culture, politics and religion," Qureshi said. The pair did inspire India and Pakistan's ambassadors to the United Nations to sit together at the U.S. Open later that year. A proposed exhibition match spanning the Indian-Pakistani border, however, never got off the ground.
Research by Shannon Snow