Taiwan is about to host its largest ever sporting event, attracting thousands of athletes from around the world, but the World University Games, dubbed the “Little Olympics”, has highlighted tensions with China and Taiwan’s struggle for international recognition.
The biennial Summer Universiade will draw more than 7,000 student athletes to Taipei for two weeks from Saturday, to compete in sports from basketball to swimming to Chinese martial arts.
It is the first time Taiwan has held the Games, yet even on home turf it must compete as “Chinese Taipei” and will be unable to fly its national flag or play its national anthem because of Beijing’s sensitivities.
The two sides split after a civil war in 1949, but Beijing still sees the self-ruled island as part of its territory and objects to any official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Relations have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office in May last year, with Beijing cutting off all official communications.
In the current climate, some expected Chinese athletes to boycott the Universiade entirely.
Instead, they will compete in individual events but sit out the team sports, citing a clash with their own national games.
Analysts see China’s participation, albeit partial, as part of its bid to influence the Taiwanese public through non-governmental interactions.
The Universiade follows Olympic rules which say Taiwan must compete as “Chinese Taipei” and cannot use its national anthem, and which bar athletes from displaying the national flag.
For medal ceremonies, a special “Chinese Taipei” flag is raised.
The Olympic rules reflect Taipei’s loss of its seat at the United Nations, which switched recognition to Beijing as China’s representative in 1971.
Since then Beijing has been quick to counter any treatment of Taiwan as a sovereign country and regularly puts pressure on international bodies to exclude it.
The name “Chinese Taipei” is a compromise that has allowed the island to participate in the Olympic Games since 1984, and is used by Taiwan at other international events to avoid China’s objections.
“In our struggle to fight for international space, we have no choice but to accept the Chinese Taipei name,” said Su Li-chiung, secretary-general of the Taipei City government, who heads the Universiade preparations.
Su said she was envious of “normal” countries which do not face such diplomatic dilemmas.
Spectators can wave whatever they like from the stands, including flags, as long as there are no political slogans.
But should there be any protest from the Chinese delegation, organisers will ask competition judges whether spectators’ flags are too disruptive, said Su.
During the 2012 Olympics in London, Taiwan’s flag was taken down from a public display on the city’s famous Regent Street and replaced with the “Chinese Taipei” flag after a complaint from the Chinese embassy.
Some have expressed outrage over Taiwan being belittled at home.
“Originally, this was a great opportunity to market Taiwan to the world, but instead we had to introduce ourselves in such a demeaning way,” lawmaker Huang Kuo-chang said on his Facebook page after the name “Chinese Taipei” was used in official promotions for the games.
Taipei’s mayor Ko Wen-je is widely seen to have secured Chinese athletes’ attendance during his visit to Shanghai in July to attend a city exchange forum.
He told local media after his visit that he drew the line at Chinese officials’ request for President Tsai to be referred to only as “leader” during the opening ceremony.
There have also been reports that the Ugandan team is pulling out of the games to show its respect for Beijing’s “one China” principle, which sees both China and Taiwan as part of a single China, something that President Tsai has refused to endorse.
But despite the political problems, there is some public excitement for the University Games.
New tennis and basketball facilities and an athletes’ village have been built, while tickets for some events have sold out, including for the badminton finals where fans hope to see beloved Taiwanese star Tai Tzu-ying — currently the world’s top female player.
Sports fanatic Jacky Wu said he would be watching as much as he could on television.
“Taiwan is strong in baseball, badminton, Taekwondo. We have good chances of winning medals in those sports,” said the 46-year-old, who works in the manufacturing sector.
Others accused China of politicising the event.
“It’s painful to see (China) disrespecting the games, and bringing politics into it,” said marketing executive Lianne Wu.
But organiser Su said it was still an opportunity to spotlight Taiwan’s talents.
“I’m calling on everyone to unite and work together, to put on a good show,” she said.