What you need to know
China will continue blocking Taiwan’s participation as a country in international sports events, but it cannot prevent the Taiwanese contingent from advancing to the final games and contesting a medal with its athletes.
The Olympic Games in Tokyo have been widely reported as the most watched Olympics in Taiwan to date. The excitement reached a pinnacle on August 1, when more than seven million Taiwanese watched with bated breath as Tai Tzu-ying competed against Chen Yufei of China in the women’s singles badminton final match.
Taiwan’s Olympians have won 12 medals, including two gold, more than double the record set in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Many of them have also collected the first-ever medal by any Taiwanese athlete in their respective events, including badminton, golf, and judo.
Taiwan’s best-ever performance, as well as a recent domestic outbreak of Covid-19, which has kept people at home, has perhaps inspired many to tune in for the Games. Taiwanese people, whether sports fans or not, flocked to social media to show support for the national athletes, with many uploading clips of themselves shouting in front of the television. On Instagram, Olympians responded by sharing these fan reactions as stories after the games.
Few might have expected Taiwan, which has fielded a relatively small contingent of athletes at the Olympics, to celebrate such a success one day. For the past two decades, the country won the majority of its medals in taekwondo and weightlifting. The win of the first gold medals in Olympics by two taekwando fighters in 2004 fueled the popularity of the Korean martial art in Taiwan, with a generation of youth sent by their parents into gymnasiums to learn self-defense skills.
Taiwan has long considered South Korea a persistent rival in sports events, which has much to do with an eagerness to win a medal in taekwondo. “We [Taiwanese] laid our foundation in taekwondo because of the Koreans, but the two countries have been in fierce competition on the international stage,” said Wang Cheng-hsiung, a taekwondo trainer, adding that Taiwanese fighters could feel shortchanged due to the biased judgments by the referees at games.
So when Yang Shu-chuan, a Taiwanese taekwondo athlete, was controversially disqualified from a semi-final in the 2010 Asian Games by an ethnic Korean referee, it drew an angry reaction in Taiwan that saw internet users calling for a boycott of Korean products. Some threw eggs at the gate of the Taipei Korean school as an act of protest.
Taiwanese baseball players have also been competing against their Korean counterparts. Due to Japanese influence, baseball has been one of the most popular sports in both countries, which see their teams vying for the top spots at world rankings. In 2013, a sports announcer’s call, “Damn it, we really wanted to defeat Korea!” following Taiwan’s close defeat by Korea in the World Baseball Classic final struck a resonant chord among Taiwanese fans.
The longstanding rivalry is in stark contrast to the positive interactions between the two countries during the Olympics in Tokyo. Taiwanese internet users praised a selfie of Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean archers as embodying “the Olympic spirit,” though Taiwan lost the championship to Korea in the final game.
For Korean fans, the fact that Taiwan has been forced by the International Olympic Committee to compete as Chinese Taipei could have been reminiscent of a similar frustration at an Olympics during Japanese occupation, according to KT Story, a Korean YouTuber. The streamer cited as evidence a photo from the 1938 Olympics in Berlin, when Sohn Kee-chung, a Korean long distance runner, won a gold medal in the marathon, but stood at the podium with his head hung low and covering the Japanese flag on his shirt with laurel leaves.
The shared experience of oppression brought the two countries together. Korean Twitter users came out in sympathy with Taiwanese Olympians, who were not allowed to compete under the name of their country, pushing #Taiwaneseplayers into the ranking of trending hashtags. Taiwanese fans also thanked Korean broadcaster MBC for referring to their contingent as the team of Taiwan rather than the designated name of Chinese Taipei in the opening parade.
This year, the rivalry with Korea was replaced by interest in the matches against China. After Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin’s win against China in the men’s doubles badminton final, Taiwanese internet users made fun of China’s failed challenge to the winning shot, which landed on the baseline, and joked about making the review image the new national flag. Millions of Taiwanese tuned in for Tai Tzu-ying’s match with Chen Yufei of China, and Tai’s Instagram account was flooded with comments of encouragement and support after she lost the gold medal to Chen.
In moments of patriotism, Taiwanese people have come together to support Olympians competing against their Chinese counterparts. The games between these athletes have also evoked solidarity across the region. Korean internet users congratulated Taiwan’s archery team for beating that of China in a semi-final and bringing the silver medal home. In Hong Kong, a crowd watching the final match of men’s badminton at a shopping mall in Kwun Tong cheered and applauded when the Taiwanese players scored points and won the championship. (It was at the same mall where Hong Kong police arrested a 40-year-old man for booing the national anthem.)
Taiwan’s competition with China in sports serves as a mirror of the conflict between the two countries, which results in Taiwan competing under the name “Chinese Taipei.” In 1981, the Kuomintang-led government, which claimed to represent China, agreed to the name after the International Olympic Committee listed the delegation of the People’s Republic of China as “China.” Many Taiwanese, including prominent athletes, are now advocating for a change from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan,” but a referendum to push for the idea was rejected after the IOC warned of a ban from the Olympics.
Beijing is highly sensitive to any suggestion that Taiwan is a sovereign state independent from China. It lashed out at NBC for showing a map of the country that does not include Taiwan in the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. For China, the name “Chinese Taipei” might have even been too ambiguous in its indication that Taiwan is ruled by Beijing. In 2016, Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency issued a guideline on “forbidden and sensitive terms in news reports,” dictating that local media outlets refer to Taiwan as “Taipei of China (中國台北)” instead of “Chinese Taipei.”
China will continue blocking Taiwan’s participation as a country in international sports events, but it cannot prevent the Taiwanese contingent from advancing to the final games and contesting a medal with its athletes. Many have already been bemused by the face-off between the two sides this year — Does China have two teams in the Olympics? The successes of Taiwanese athletes can be expected to underscore the absurdity of the IOC’s arrangement to appease China and Taiwan’s struggle to be seen and heard.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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