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Zhuang Zedong, 72, ‘Ping-Pong diplomat,’ champ

Zhuang Zedong (right) in action in 1961. His act of kindness 10 years later led to an ice-breaking meeting with a US team.

Zhang Hesong/Xinhua via Associated Press

Zhuang Zedong (right) in action in 1961. His act of kindness 10 years later led to an ice-breaking meeting with a US team.

BEIJING — Three-time world table tennis champion Zhuang Zedong, a key figure in the groundbreaking ‘‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’’ between China and the United States, died Sunday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported. He was 72 and had struggled with cancer since 2008.

Mr. Zhuang won fame by presenting a gift to American player Glenn Cowan, who had inadvertently boarded a bus carrying the Chinese team at the world championships in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971.

 Mr. Zhuang with Glenn Cowan in 1972. In the previous year, Mr. Zhuang presented a gift to the US player.

XU BIHUA/XINHUA VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mr. Zhuang with Glenn Cowan in 1972. In the previous year, Mr. Zhuang presented a gift to the US player.

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Mr. Zhuang and Cowan were photographed together, creating an international sensation at a time when China and the United States were bitter Cold War rivals.

Under orders from Chinese leader Mao Zedong, the 15-member American team was then invited to China at the end of the Nagoya championships for an ice-breaking visit. Ten months later, President Richard Nixon made a surprise visit to China, leading to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979.

Mr. Zhuang became a favorite of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a member of the notorious Gang of Four, which held sway during the radical turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Jiang appointed Mr. Zhuang to a number of political posts in the sports ministry.

Mr. Zhuang came under investigation after the Gang of Four was deposed and Jiang imprisoned following Mao’s death in 1976.

He subsequently spent years coaching the provincial team in the northern province of Shanxi. He returned to Beijing in 1985 and coached young players for several years.

Mr. Zhuang was married twice and had one daughter.

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