Table tennis champion who initiated ping-pong diplomacy during the Cold War;

Born: August 25, 1940; Died: February 10, 2013.

Zhuang Zedong, who has died aged 72, was a three-times world champion table tennis player and a key figure in the ping-pong diplomacy that led to a resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and China in the 1970s. In later years his association with Chairman Mao led to his downfall and exile. "I did many dreadful things I now regret," he said.

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He was born in the eastern province of Jiangsu and joined the Chinese table tennis team as a teenager. He pioneered a new technique in which he held the bat like a pen which meant it was highly manoeuvrable; the technique helped him become the world's most successful table tennis player, winning more titles than any other player.

However, his great fame came during the world championships in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971 when the American table-tennis player Glenn Cowan boarded the Chinese team bus by mistake. The Chinese team had been ordered not to fraternise with the country's political enemies but Zhuang, against the advice of his team-mates, approached Cowan and presented him with a gift of a silk-screen painting. He told Cowan that although their governments were unfriendly, the American people were friends of the Chinese.

Very quickly, news of the encounter spread around the world and led to Mao inviting the American table tennis players to China. It was the first act in the ping-pong diplomacy that led to President Richard Nixon visiting China the following year – the first time a US President had visited Communist China. Diplomatic ties were restored formally in 1979.

In the years that followed, Zhuang became a favourite of Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, a member of the notorious Gang of Four which held sway over China's cultural scene.

She appointed Zhuang to a number of political posts in the sports ministry and Zhuang also organised many of the infamous public denunciations, something which he later deeply regretted. Zhuang said that even at the peak of his influence he was aware of the potential danger of his position. In an interview he said it was like being taken to the top of a mountain only to find a steep precipice at your feet.

When the fall from power did eventually come, after Mao's death, it was disastrous for Zhuang and his family. He was arrested and sent into exile before spending years in obscurity coaching the provincial team in the northern province of Shanxi. He eventually returned to Beijing in 1985 and coached young players for several years.

He was married twice and had one daughter by his first marriage.