Sat, Nov 19, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Sports could fuel healthy nationalism

Watching players from Australia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Switzerland and Trinidad and Tobago exult on Wednesday over qualifying for next year's World Cup was a powerful and disarming moment. Self-doubt, negativity and fear of failure were swept away in a blinding moment of joy and triumph. For the lucky teams going to Germany, and for those who did not qualify but who vividly remember doing so in earlier competitions, it is a powerful moment of self-affirmation and bonding.

All the more curious, then, that such positive nationalist feeling should be associated with an enterprise that, like all other sports, does not derive its essential power from ideology.

Sadly, aside from occasional matches in the sport of baseball, Taiwan does not have the opportunity to feel this joy. Yet celebrating national sporting achievement is something that Taiwanese should not have to struggle so hard to bring about.

Admittedly, the Athens Olympics allowed the nation to express a certain degree of happiness at the success of its archers and taekwondo competitors, but these are solo sports that the average Taiwanese has no knowledge of, let alone interest in.

The government reacted to the gold medal haul in Athens with all the finesse one might expect from individuals bereft of an understanding of sport. Instead of pumping funding into the development of sports programs and youth development initiatives, the pot of cash was largely wasted on high-profile athletes who needed no such generosity. A small fortune was stuffed in the pockets of individuals for their help in making Taiwan look slightly better than a backwater.

The beauty of sport is that it is both meaningless and profoundly meaningful in the lives of the individuals who participate in contests, as well as their supporters. On the world stage, soccer is the ultimate world contest, yet Taiwan, or "Chinese Taipei" as it is represented by FIFA, is a minnow, cowering among the most backward of soccer-playing nations.

One cannot help wondering if this might change for soccer and other team sports if parents didn't imprison their children in cram schools -- which fleece them of their money, rob their children of valuable playtime and deceive them into thinking university places will become more numerous. Instead, children could be encouraged to express their growing physicality.

Soccer, more than any other sport, allows people to feel the relevance of physical skill and communal solidarity at all levels of engagement. It also presumes a common playing field for all players, all clubs and all nations. It is at once tribal and anti-tribal, often nationalist in execution but always universalist in spirit.

More's the pity, then, that Taiwan, with all of its wealth and potential, ranks 155th in the world in this telling index, and is far less concerned about the sport and the national team's wretched circumstances than countries ranked even lower that have far fewer resources.

This situation is somehow representative of the malaise that afflicts Taiwanese. This society provides no regular opportunity for gathering and celebrating as Taiwanese nationals -- a community bonding for which team sports offer superb opportunities. Because there is precious little oxygen to voice healthy and constructive identification with this nascent nation, it remains, as Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) once said in a moment of insight, a heap of loose sand -- vulnerable to the agendas of others whose intentions are not benign.

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