The Eighth World Games get under way in Kaohsiung with tonight’s opening ceremony.
The Games will see more than 4,000 athletes from around 100 countries and regions descend on the city to take part in 31 events over the course of the 10-day sporting extravaganza — the biggest sporting event the nation has ever hosted.
Although the World Games do not share the high profile of their Olympic counterpart, they present Kaohsiung and Taiwan with a great opportunity to attract positive coverage in the global media.
For Kaohsiung, the World Games also offer a rare opportunity for the nation’s second city to steal some of the limelight usually reserved for the capital. Hosting thousands of foreign guests from all around the world will hand the residents of Kaohsiung the chance to broaden their horizons and make connections with more people from outside the Asia-Pacific region.
For Taiwan, the occasion presents the nation with a platform on which to step out of the shadow of its giant neighbor and demonstrate to the world what a friendly, tolerant, free and thriving society this is.
Of course, this can only happen if both sides of the political divide can work together to show the true Taiwan to visitors and television audiences around the world.
Too often in the past politicians have let partisan interests and ideological differences get in the way of hosting international events, ruining countless opportunities for Taiwan to show the world what it is capable of.
With a bit of luck, Kaohsiung promises to be different.
So far, apart from a few squabbles over the budget, the signs have been encouraging, especially following President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) announcement this week that he will attend the opening ceremony as president of the nation.
But even if domestic differences are kept under control, the behavior of that other perennial fly in the ointment — China — is less predictable.
Ma’s announcement, coupled with the Kaohsiung Organizing Committee’s decision not to ban spectators from carrying the Republic of China flag (a move that flouts Olympic protocol) will no doubt have caught Beijing’s attention.
It remains to be seen how the Chinese will react, but they have to realize that, unlike on other occasions when Chinese officials have protested or snatched flags out of the hands of Taiwanese competitors, this time they will be in Taiwan.
It may prove to be tough for Chinese athletes and team officials to keep their cool, especially if there are any incidents of flag baiting by Taiwanese, but any displays of hostile Chinese nationalism will only increase the negative opinion of China that many Taiwanese hold.
Let’s hope that Chinese officials understand this and have briefed their delegation and asked its members to exercise restraint.
The saying “politics and sports shouldn’t mix” may not ring entirely true for Taiwan, but it should be taken to heart over the next 10 days.
Only by adopting this attitude can the Kaohsiung World Games reach their potential.