The Hidden Mystery of Hoops Diplomacy: France vs. China, 1966




Image: Musée du Basket

This month, the People’s Republic of China, embroiled in a seemingly endless trade war with the United States and endeavoring to quash pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, is nevertheless also performing one of the ultimate acts of basketball diplomacy. China is hosting the FIBA World Cup, a quadrennial, international basketball tournament and qualifier for the summer Olympics. While hoops fans in the United States might glaze over thinking about the prospect of bizarro September basketball (the early rounds are only available to stream on ESPN+), the tournament draws a huge amount of attention globally, and national team organizations have been hugely influential in developing stars like Spain’s Gasol brothers, Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, and even 2018-19 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece.   

To host the FIBA World Cup is to publicly perform a kind of cultural diplomacy, trumpeting the communication, representation, and negotiation that occurs in and around the court. In this case, China is welcoming the world, letting the informal people-to-people cultural exchanges and formal pageantry of hosting do its diplomatic work broadcasting what the country, its people, and culture are like.  (Not to mention that China has a storied basketball tradition that has endured for more than a century because the game was embraced by most social classes and political parties.) But performances of diplomacy like these, by any country, are as full of mystery and misdirection as they are transparency and openness. In this case, China is eager to tell a certain story about itself by way of FIBA, but, its hosting this year brings to mind a puzzling anecdote in the history of hoops diplomacy.

This unlikely story fell into my lap during lunch four years ago at France’s National Sports Institute (INSEP). Nestled in the Bois de Vincennes in the eastern outskirts of Paris, INSEP is the home of French elite sports. It is part training ground for national teams and athletes, part sports school for the country’s top teenaged talents, and part sports laboratory. The complex features in French Olympic tradition, a terre de champions (land of champions), and I was there doing early fieldwork for a new book project. The question at hand was why France had become one of the leading all-time pipelines for international NBA (and now, WNBA) players. Any answers necessitated understanding the country’s unique basketball backstory and that’s how I found myself at lunch with Federal Basketball Center President Michel Rat and Jean-Marie Jouaret, two former international basketballers.

Rat and Jouaret were full of engaging hoops history and anecdotes. Then, as we began dessert, Jouaret casually mentioned the time they played with the national team, then known as Les Tricolores, in China during the summer of 1966.

The reference immediately caught my attention. Few Westerns had visited mainland China since Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party took over power in 1949 and cut ties, diplomatic and otherwise, with the ‘bourgeois’ West.  Beijing broke with Moscow in 1960, and while it reestablished diplomatic relations with Paris in 1964, it was not until the early 1970s Sino-American ping-pong diplomacy that China had a rapprochement with the rest of the West. Moreover, Summer 1966 was when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, the purge of elites, intellectuals, and class enemies. Could this basketball trip to China have been an earlier form of sports diplomacy with the West than commonly known? If so, what were the larger implications? And, more to the point, how had I — a historian of French sports and sports diplomacy — never even heard of this strange trip?

Equally of intrigue, France in the 1960s was in the midst of a sports crisis: the inability to win major international titles or medals in most sports. This failure on the world stage reportedly frustrated President Charles de Gaulle for it did not portray the desired image of a winning, revived France, key to establishing a Paris independent from the Washington-Moscow bipolar Cold War axis following decolonization and the Algerian War. Basketball, a sport French authorities esteemed and thought their countrymen and women should excel at because it was the “most cerebral of team sports,” was also in crisis. There was a certain pride that the first European basketball game occurred in Paris in December 1893. Although Gallic hoops enjoyed a golden era postwar — the men won Olympic silver in 1948 and several bronze medals at the European Championships of the 1950s while the women garnered bronze at the 1953 World Championship (now World Cup) — neither national team was terribly competitive after 1960. Given this record, why was basketball the sport used in what appeared to be a Franco-Chinese sports diplomacy ploy? What was that trip like and did it successfully fulfill its original objectives?

Over dessert, Jouaret and Rat unpacked the story in as much detail as the two could recall. There were some great nuggets. They recalled the team’s curiosity during the first match in Beijing when the Chinese head coach was observed to read from a book during timeouts; that book contained Mao’s military strategies,  their interpreters informed them, which were relevant to on-court tactics like encirclement. Even better was how the six-foot-four Jouaret evaded security one afternoon while the team napped and snuck out of the team hotel to watch students marching in the streets of Beijing. The thought of the center’s conspicuousness on the fringes of that crowd provoked great laughs from our lunch table. Even more tantalizing was the morsel that the team caused a diplomatic incident when one game ended in a disputed basket, the French referee ruling in favor of the French and his Chinese counterpart doing the same for his home team; the team waited endlessly in the lockerroom postmatch until the French diplomat traveling with them resolved the issue.

But these stories seemed like the tip of the iceberg. That lunch launched my quest to learn more about this expedition, to understand how basketball diplomacy was used, and why France was one of, if not the first, national Western basketball teams to play on mainland China. Answering such questions could put this episode into greater context and illustrate the importance of basketball diplomacy past and present, critical as outside of the American context — the Harlem Globetrotters or other U.S. Department of State sponsored trips — there has been little recognition of the sport’s vital place in the sports diplomacy nexus (and why it matters).

This hidden story tells us a lot, as it turns out, while still remaining shrouded in mystery.

Armed with recordings of my conversations with Jouaret and Rat, I used my limited time in France to plunge into the press archives, and the story began to come together. In May 1966, the Chinese national team came to France to play two matches, one in Paris and the other in Lyon. They lost both, but invited Les Tricolores to visit them that summer to contest two more games — the return leg. That’s how an 18-man delegation of players, coaches, and FFBB officials found themselves boarding a plane at Orly airport the morning of July 28, the first flight of a two-day multi-stopover journey.

Once in Beijing, the team embarked on a nearly two-week long basketball program with mixed results.  France won their first match against China, a come-from-behind 67-61 victory, but lost the subsequent rematch (54-63); while Les Tricolores also lost to a few regional and military teams, they ended with a 59-50 win against Kiangsou. Such a lackluster record was chalked up to a combination of high heat and humidity in non-air conditioned stadiums, exhaustion, and home sickness.

But it wasn’t just about basketball. There was a cultural component to the trip, which included tours of selected sights like the Imperial Palace, the Great Wall, and even a balloon factory, and French Ambassador to China Lucien Paye held a reception for his basketballers one evening in Beijing. Clearly, the team received high-level treatment.

Despite the ability to reconstruct some of the trip from archival press clippings, the larger context was still missing. Thanks to the work of scholars in the field of sports diplomacy and sport in the Cold War, especially Amanda Shuman and Andrew D. Morris, the contours of Chinese sport and how it was  used to facilitate or reinforce diplomatic relations with allies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Eastern Bloc, sending messages of friendship to international publics were known. It squared well with my own work of how postwar France wished to use sports to improve its international image, to counter perceptions of a France in crisis and to induce others — particularly those in the postcolonial Global South — to follow its lead in foreign affairs. The Government of France’s Documents diplomatiques françaises, the documentary history of French foreign policy, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ English-language documents on Sino-French relations provided greater backbone to the story, though neither referenced sports or this particular basketball trip.

Fortunately, a work trip to Le Mans, a small city west of Paris, helped further the story. Known for the 24Hours of Le Mans race, it also happens to be home to one of the country’s storied basketball clubs, Le Mans-Sarthe Basket (MSB), where Charlotte Hornets’ Nicolas Batum began his professional career, and where I found former French international Christian Baltzer, an alumni of the 1966 trip. For more than an hour one spring morning, Baltzer spoke with me about China and showed me the scrapbook he made, replete with photographs and program souvenirs, all those years ago. It was a gold mine of information as Baltzer helped fill in many of the holes in the story.

Les Tricolores’ trip was, as suspected, considered a major milestone. The players were excited to visit China, an enigma as few had visited since 1949. Baltzer, who last played with the national team in its failed campaign to qualify for the 1964 Olympics, suited up once again specifically to take part in this tour. Once there, the fans, usually some 10,000 or 18,000 strong, turned out in those blisteringly hot stadiums to wildly cheer on their home team. The hosts held magnificent feasts for their visitors, where the food was bountiful and exotic, something that took the French aback for they knew of the recent famine and suspected that food scarcity was likely still an issue. Moreover, the three interpreters assigned to the French were their main interlocutors, for Baltzer and his teammates were prohibited from interacting with ordinary Chinese; thus much of what they learned the country, its people and culture came from these three young men. Baltzer also suspected their interpreters were secret service, for they also surveilled each other, not just their foreign charges.

The story now had its backbone and musculature, but the larger questions, the “so what” aspect, remained allusive. For this, it was time to dive into the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ overseas archives in Nantes.  

Sometimes archives are a jackpot, providing proof and wonderfully detailed documents that make your hypotheses rock solid. Sometimes they provide helpful breadcrumbs indicating which trails to follow in your quest. Yet, just as often, archival repositories lack anything that directly pertains to the subject at hand.

That was my experience in Nantes. The working assumption was that one of, if not the, first sports exchanges between France and China’s national teams, barely two years after the reestablishment of diplomatic ties, would translate into documentation of that trip. The French Embassy in Beijing would have communicated with the Quai d’Orsay about arrangements for Les Tricolores, their arrival, the celebrations held by Ambassador Paye in their honor, or that diplomatic incident caused by the disputed final shot, one that my sources said was resolved by a French diplomat. At the very least, given that French diplomats traveled with the team, there would be reports to Paris about those diplomats’ observations of local conditions on the ground as the Cultural Revolution devolved.

It was encouraging that French diplomats in China were keenly attuned to the regime’s use of sports in its foreign endeavors. In the embassy’s cultural files from late 1964 and into 1965, reports to Paris discussed Beijing’s sports diplomacy exchanges in Africa and Asia, how new efforts were underway to improve elite Chinese athletes’ performances so that they matched or exceeded pre-1949 results at international competitions, and even cultural backgrounders on certain key sports, including basketball. Documentation from the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s included letters and itineraries for visits by French teams and coaches, including team rosters and receptions or dinners hosted by the ambassador. The embassy’s political reporting included heavily detailed information about the intrigues of politics and different CCP actors, economic and trade concerns, the famine and its aftermath, and the impacts of the Cultural Revolution. 

Nowhere, however, was there any mention about that seminal 1966 basketball trip. Nor were there any notices that some of that information remained classified, a common practice. Even if somehow those 1966 basketball files were housed with the Ministry of Youth and Sport repository at the French National Archives, the original copies would be with the Diplomatic Archives as they would have been created and sent by the embassy in Beijing. (My dissertation research mined the Ministry of Youth and Sport archives related to soccer and basketball of the 1960s, and contained no reference to this 1966 China trip).

The archival staff in Nantes were recruited and affirmed that I was looking in all of the correct files. But by the end of the day we were all wondering: what happened to those documents and why had any reference to the 1966 hoops trip seemingly disappeared from the official diplomatic record?  

There are no clear answers but several likely scenarios. It’s possible that these records were not considered important enough at the time to preserve for posterity, even though documentation about seemingly less seminal sports trips in the late 1960s are accounted for. Maybe they were damaged beyond salvation. Another possibility is that, given the press of events of late July and August 1966, the first months of the Cultural Revolution and traditionally vacation time for the French, embassy staff in Beijing didn’t have enough time or personnel to report as thoroughly on the basketball team’s trip or their observations of on-ground conditions as they traveled with the team.  Or perhaps something about this trip or something that occurred during it remains highly sensitive and not accessible to the public, with a notice of classification somehow overlooked in the archives.

It’s difficult to assess official French reactions to this episode, but the available sources tell a compelling story and emphasize the merits of hoops diplomacy. Sports diplomacy was used by China and France to help cement their budding relationship in the mid-1960s and send a strong message to foreign publics and governments caught between the Washington-Moscow Cold War axis. Basketball was the prestige sport of choice, a nod to each country’s heritage playing the game since the 1890s and place of pride.

For China, it was a unique opportunity to gain propaganda points. Baltzer, Jouaret, and Rat confirmed there were photo opportunities throughout the trip, although we don’t know (yet) how these images were used by Chinese authorities. No French journalists were present on this trip, so reciprocal images did not appear in the mainstream French press, although Basket-Ball ran selected photographs taken by FFBB officials that reaffirmed the hoops friendship.

The French came away with a window into and better understanding of the host country, the ultimate end-goals of any sports diplomacy program. The players were impressed by Chinese fans, food, and cultural monuments like the Great Wall and Imperial City (even though tourism wasn’t really “done” at the time, as it was considered too bourgeois). But they also understood that their experience was selectively cultivated by Chinese officials, that the significant restrictions placed on their movement prohibited any true interactions with everyday people aside from their interpreters (from who they did learn a lot).

Yet, this fascinating story also highlights some of sports diplomacy’s limitations.  Scholars are bound by an era’s concepts of what information is important enough to archive and maintain — or not — and it’s likely that the 1966 trip is a victim of older notions that sports weren’t as important as other “high culture” exchanges, like art, music, or food. As my book The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010 notes, sports weren’t considered part of 1960s French culture, a fact sports officials lamented and blamed as one of the roots of the sports crisis. In fact, as part of its efforts to reverse this crisis and improve international results, the Government of France passed the 1975 Mazeaud Law which, for the first time in the postwar era, stipulated that sport was an integral part of the nation’s culture. While French diplomats clearly understood that sport was important to the Chinese government’s 1960s foreign affairs agenda, perhaps they did not consider a basketball exchange important enough to document in that way that today’s experts might, given the ways that sports diplomacy has emerged as a growing concern globally in twenty-first century foreign policy.

Another limitation is that, in the case of people-to-people cultural exchanges, so much depends on an individual’s lived experience and perceptions, making sports diplomacy somewhat subjective. In the 1966 case, the accounts of Baltzer, Jouaret, and Rat are critical to reconstructing the story and are shining advertisements for the importance of oral history. Yet, such oral history is subject to personal perspectives, biases, or memory.

The symbolism of sports diplomacy, especially vis-à-vis China and basketball, remains potent. In 1966, it represented China’s emergent yet important role in international affairs. Today, hosting the FIBA World Cup as China is asserting a much larger role economically and politically in foreign relations signifies the country’s continued pursuit of sport as one tool in its diplomatic toolbox. This month’s tournament may be viewed in the same light as the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics or 2022 Beijing Winter Games, as an opportunity for the country to showcase its abilities and aptitudes, even while blights on its record, like the present standoff with protestors in Hong Kong, continued human rights violations, or Internet restrictions are swaying public opinion. For a brief moment, though, it will be China’s famous basketball-crazy fans center-stage, telling whatever story they tell to the world about their country. That moment will change things for the better, or it will be forgotten.

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a writer, historian, and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010.

 

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