The Beijing Olympic Games look set to be the most political for years. The BBC's China correspondent James Reynolds looks back at another time when Chinese sport and politics met - the era of ping-pong diplomacy.
In the city of Guangdong, thousands of fans stare at a ping-pong table set up in the middle of a stadium.
Liang Geliang went on to capitalise from his success as a ping-pong player
The blue table is a bit like an imperial throne. People come from all over the world to see it and they have to bow down to the country that rules over it: China never loses a match.
Most of the faces in the crowd are Chinese. But there is one man - a Westerner - who stands out.
He is in his early seventies, he wears a baggy denim shirt, and he has long white hair and an earring.
His name is Tim Boggan and he is a now a table-tennis historian.
In 1971, he was part of a US team invited to China to play ping-pong.
They were among the first Americans to be officially invited to Beijing since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
Their ping-pong diplomacy opened the way for China to begin relations with the US and the West.
"It was an amazing trip, especially when we had no idea about what was life ahead," says Mr Boggan.
"We had no idea really that we'd be seen as heroes. We were amazed when we went back to the States. I think only the death of Kennedy had got that kind of attention."
China used the visit as a test. If the communist regime could allow in a dozen or so capitalist sportsmen and manage to avoid total collapse, then perhaps it could afford to open up a little more.
Sport and politics are definitely intertwined, says Mr Boggan
China's confidence was probably helped by the fact that the capitalists went on to lose all their matches.
A year after their visit, US President Richard Nixon came to Beijing.
And China's course was set. The Starbucks, the McDonalds, Mercedes and BMWs you can see everywhere in China can be traced right back to the fact that Tim Boggan and his team-mates came here 37 years ago with their ping-pong bats.
"When you hear that sport and politics have nothing to do with each other, what do you think?" I ask.
"I think it is crazy, you know that they certainly do," he says.
"And it is the same thing with the president of our association - he said we just wanted to meet friends, and we met friends, and meanwhile you can't imagine a more political scene, you just went to see your neighbours, it is crazy."
And he laughs loudly at the memory.
Our search for one of the original Chinese players takes us to a gym in Beijing.
On a Saturday morning, a series of university professors queue up to play against a short man who spins the ball back to them.
The man never misses a shot. His name is Liang Geliang. He was chosen to play the Americans in 1971.
"We were all happy to see the American team come to China," he says. "We felt there was an urgent need for communications between us."
After the ice broke, people like Liang Geliang began to enjoy opportunities they had never had before.
Instead of demonising the West, China eventually allowed its people to live there - so Liang Geliang and his family moved to Germany for a while.
The art of ping-pong
And after years spent hating money, China allowed its citizens to make it instead.
So Liang Geliang is about to market his own specially designed table-tennis bat, together with his signature engraved on the handle.
"Sport and politics, are they linked or are they separated?" I ask.
"No, they can't be separated," he answers.
"Playing ping-pong is an art, but the sport itself goes beyond this. Of course we want to win championships but there is more to it than that. We must put politics first."
There is perhaps a certain symmetry here. China's first important sporting event - the ping-pong of 1971 - brought China, the US and the West together.
Now, its second big event - the Olympics of 2008 - will test the strength of the ties made through sport.