When news of taekwondo athlete Yang Shu-chun’s (楊淑君) disqualification from the Asian Games on Wednesday last week made it back to Taiwan, the Sports Affairs Council first responded by saying that contestants should “swallow” decisions. However, as public reaction grew stronger, senior members of the government immediately changed their tune and said there was no need take the decision lying down, promising to offer stronger backing to the nation’s athletes.
I hope they meant what they said and they don’t forget their pledge once the storm blows over. Otherwise, not too many athletes will be willing to represent Taiwan internationally.
Taiwanese athletes have always been very solitary and they often have to rely on raw talent and the limited funds their families can offer. Performing well is not enough to guarantee their future livelihoods. In addition, when they represent the nation overseas, they are often treated unfairly because of Taiwan’s international status. To put things simply, the government offers very little support to our athletes.
In June, tennis player Lu Yen-hsun (盧彥勳) battled his way to the Wimbledon quarter-finals. When he returned to Taiwan, he urged the government to pay more attention to the training of Taiwanese tennis players. Premier Wu Den-yih’s (吳敦義) reaction was to say flat out that “this is impossible.”
The government pays no attention to nurturing talented athletes and when athletes experience problems representing Taiwan overseas, the government does not offer reasonable assistance. For example, in last year’s East Asian Games, taekwondo athlete Tseng Ching-hsiang (曾敬翔) was punched in the throat by his opponent and could not complete the competition. Apart from a vigorous protest by Minister Without Portfolio Ovid Tseng (曾志朗), members of the relevant government departments chose to handle the matter in a “low-key” manner. If the government pays such little regard to sports, how are we ever going to keep our athletes in Taiwan?
Last year, news broke that billiards player Wu Chia-ching (吳珈慶) would be applying for Singaporean citizenship with the intention of representing Singapore at the Asian Games. While Wu’s attempt was quashed, it undoubtedly sent a warning to sports authorities that if the government does not offer athletes a better environment and stronger support, it is very possible that all of the country’s best athletes will leave to represent other nations.
After golf star Yani Tseng (曾雅妮) won the LPGA championship, a plethora of rumors suggested that both China and South Korea were trying to get her to play for them by offering large sums of money. Tseng has strong financial backing from her family, so the alleged offers may not have tempted her, but most Taiwanese athletes do not come from a well-off background and not all athletes would be able to ignore the temptation of a big pay-day.
Singapore has experienced strong economic growth over the past few years and it has started to offer substantial remuneration in an active attempt to lure talented foreign athletes. Li Jiawei (李佳薇), Wang Yuegu (王越古) and Feng Tianwei (馮天薇), who won the team silver medal for Singapore in women’s table tennis at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, are all originally from China.
Singapore also has its eyes on athletes from Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan. In August, Singapore spent US$280 million to host the world’s first ever Youth Olympics. Singapore’s determination to promote sports should not be ignored. If outstanding athletes like Yang are continuously disappointed by the response from the government and end up either retiring or representing other countries, Taiwan’s sporting scene would be dealt a huge blow.
Taiwan’s sports budget for this year is a mere NT$6.5 billion (US$212 million), a lot lower than that of Brazil, a country less economically developed. South Korea, one of Taiwan’s closest rivals in sports, spends more than NT$10 billion per year on training its national teams. It is little wonder that South Korea’s sporting accomplishments over the past 20 years has seen it become the second-strongest sporting nation in Asia.
What happened to Yang is something that government officials should think long and hard about. When the government does not offer any resources to athletes and cannot protect their dignity, how are we supposed to keep our best athletes in Taiwan?
Hsu Yu-fang is an associate professor at National Dong Hwa University’s Department of Sinophone Literature.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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