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China-Taiwan tensions show at Universiade

Klaus Bardenhagen ls
August 20, 2017

One of the world's biggest sports tournaments has begun. Thousands of athletes have come to Taiwan, where they're discovering the intricacies of a decades-old divide with mainland China.

Dancers during the opening ceremony of the Universiade in Taiwan
Image: DW/K. Bardenhagen

Suddenly, athletes stopped entering the Taipei stadium. The event had started the opening procession according to plan, but they only got as far as 'B' for Burundi. After that, with no further explanation, it was only the national flags that were brought in, one after another, for almost an hour. Like all the others, the German banner was also unaccompanied by athletes.

Confusion spread among the crowd. Taiwan had been preparing for so long for its Universiade. But had the event collapsed before it even began? Could China possibly be behind it?

The German flag arrived, but without a team
The German flag arrived, but without a teamImage: DW/K. Bardenhagen

Read more: Taiwan's president urges China to stay 'calm and rational' amid rising tensions

Eventually, though, the situation was resolved, and there were huge cheers as the athletes finally streamed into the stadium. The delay had been caused by a domestic political protest outside the stadium: Opponents of civil service pension reform had blocked the athletes from entering.

The Universiade, an international student sports tournament, has taken place every two years since 1959. It's regarded as the biggest multi-sport event after the Olympic Games. More than 7,500 athletes from 142 nations have traveled to Taipei. Till 30 August, they will compete for medals in a wide variety of sporting disciplines. Those attending must be students, and must - above all - be top-ranking athletes. There are even some Olympic gold medal winners in the Taipei stadium this year.

The 126 Germans participating in the event finally entered the stadium, waving cheerfully. Among them was the gymnast Kim Bui, originally selected to be the team's standard-bearer. She competed at the Olympic Games in Rio. It's a very young team, Malin Hoster of the German University Sports Federation told DW: The average age is less than 23.

The German athletes eventually joined the opening ceremony
The German athletes eventually joined the opening ceremonyImage: DW/K. Bardenhagen

Chinese boycott of the celebrations

However, one team was missing, but that was no surprise. China had already indicated in advance that it would be boycotting the opening ceremony. Beijing didn't want to subject its athletes to the sight of Taiwan's president being officially introduced and applauded in the stadium. As far as the People's Republic is concerned, democratic Taiwan is not an independent state, and cannot be allowed to be one.

The other teams also joined after the mishap
After the initial mishap, other teams joined the stadium processional (pictured here: the Chilean delegation)Image: DW/K. Bardenhagen

For the island nation, which - thanks to China's claim - is politically isolated, these games are a rare opportunity for it to gain attention on the international stage. With a total of more than 11,000 participants, including trainers and officials, it's one of the biggest international events ever to take place in Taiwan. Only a few trade fairs bring more people than that to the country; the Computex IT fair, for example, which draws more than 40,000 foreign visitors.

"Of course it makes us proud," Taipei's head of tourism, Chian Yu-yan told DW. "We Taiwanese want to use this opportunity to present ourselves to the world. It's a special opportunity for us, because we're not a member of the United Nations."

'Chinese Taipei' instead of Taiwan

Taiwan's complex political situation and the difficult relationship with China should not be at the forefront of the Universiade, but it does keep rearing its head. For example, the fact that the crowds in the sports halls wave their red-and-blue national flag when cheering on the local athletes is not something they can take for granted. At other international sporting events in Taiwan, organizers – with over-zealous obedience – sometimes ban them from doing this. On the international stage, Taiwan's sportsmen and women are not allowed to compete as "Taiwan," or even under the official country name of the "Republic of China," but only ever under the designation "Chinese Taipei." This is also the case at the Universiade.

Chian Yu-yan, Taiwan's tourism director in Taipei (right), at a press conference with the Universiade Mascot in Taipei
Chian Yu-yan, Taiwan's tourism director in Taipei (right), at a press conference with the Universiade Mascot in TaipeiImage: DW/K. Bardenhagen

The unpopular, artificial name is based on a decision taken by the International Olympic Committee in 1981. The People's Republic had balked at the designation "Republic of China." The nationalist government in Taipei, which at the time was still governing under martial law, rejected "Taiwan," as it was clinging to the illusion that it still represented the whole of China. In the end they agreed on the formula "Chinese Taipei." Most Taiwanese have come to terms with their team being labeled this way.

Beijing makes life difficult for Taiwan

China's boycott of the opening ceremony was no surprise, firstly because the same thing happened at the World Games and the Deaflympics in 2009; and secondly, because the games are being held at a time when Beijing is taking every opportunity to put obstacles in Taiwan's path. Since President Tsai Ing-wen took office last year, and since her refusal to define Taiwan as part of "One China," an icy wind has been blowing across from the mainland. A few of many examples: China has managed to bring an important diplomatic ally in the shape of Panama to its side, and Taiwan's participation in Interpol and WHO conferences was blocked. China's navy and air force circle Taiwan and make practice forays into the Pacific, while a Taiwanese pro-democracy activist disappeared into a Chinese jail nearly six months ago.

The fact that China is only sending individual athletes to the Universiade rather than a full sports team may also be to spare them catcalls. There were ugly scenes at a youth ice hockey game in Taipei in March. Following a foul against a Taiwanese player, the two sides started fighting; fans threw projectiles onto the ice, and the Chinese unfurled their national flag in provocation.

Malin Hoster stands in the athlete village. She wants the German team to stay away from politics while in Taiwan
Malin Hoster, pictured here in the athletes' village, wants the German team to stay away from politics while in TaiwanImage: DW/K. Bardenhagen

Germans are staying out of it

The German team has no interest in venturing into this treacherous political arena. Hoster told DW that before the team's departure they received instruction about Taiwan from a professor. His tip was, "We shouldn't say anything about Taiwan actually belonging to China. We'll be on the safe side if we just stay out of it and don't start any political discussions."

Although the Universiade is not that well known among the general public, it's very significant for the younger participants, Hoster explains. For many of them, it's their first opportunity to gain international experience at a big tournament. "And above all," Hoster adds, "at a multi-sport event like this they also get to know athletes from quite different disciplines. At a European or world championship, you're always just with your own people."

The aim is for as many Germans as possible to get to the final phase, meaning placement among the top eight or 12. Trainers haven't yet to set a target for the number of medals they want to win, but they're hopeful of doing well, especially in track and field athletics, judo, taekwondo and swimming.

Incidentally, Hoster explains, the German national anthem won't be played in Taiwan, even in the event of a win. At the Universiade only the International University Sports Association anthem is played at medal ceremonies. A small comfort, perhaps, for the Taiwanese onlookers and athletes: That way, for once, they're not the only people at a tournament who don't get to hear their national anthem.