In just a few weeks, Ma Chih-hung (馬志鴻), a 19-year old athlete from Pingtung, will be competing in the men's single luge in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He will be the lone competitor in the Taiwanese team, though he will be accompanied teammates and coaches offering moral and logistical support.
It may come as a surprise that Taiwan would send an athlete to this year's Winter Olympics, however, early Olympic games were once a showcase for amateur athletes, and Taiwan sent a ski team in 1972, and in subsequent years, competitors in both bobsled and luge.
It's hard to imagine that local skiers fared well in the 1972 games in Sapporo, Japan, though they did have access to local training facilities as the opening of the Cross-Island Highway created new access to mountainous, snow-cap-ped areas of Taiwan.
And in early 1970, Taiwan opened its first ski slope atop Hehuanshan, a popular tourist spot which was newly outfitted with a ski gondola, a lodge and rental skis, a location particularly popular during the Lunar New Year Holiday.
The amateur nature of the Olympics at that time meant that each country was free to send their best athletes, and in some instances, athletes that were shockingly under-qualified to participate in international competition.
The infamous `eagle'
The Olympics existed in this way until Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards of the UK appeared on the scene, or should we say, at the top of the ski jump at the Calgary 1988 Olympics. Despite little hope of earning a medal, let alone landing a single ski jump, Edwards earned an automatic bye into the competition because his country had no other ski jumpers.
Despite his instant celebrity, aided by thick glasses and a stocky build, Olympic officials worried he posed physical risk to himself and spectators, quickly drafting a new "Eddie the Eagle Rule" where Olympic athletes must compete in international events and place in the top 30 percent or among the top 50 competitors.
It's safe to say that early participation of Taiwan teams were akin to this brave Briton -- built more upon bravado rather than athletic skill.
Yet another impetus for Taiwan to join new sports came about as China began pressuring sporting federations around the world to exclude Taiwan from international competition. China was successful in banning Taiwan from participation in high profile sports such as cycling, wrestling and volleyball.
With Taiwan eliminated from participating in these sports, the national Olympic committee searched for other sports to fill the void, ultimately approving both funding and support for Olympic luge and bobsled programs. Luge, it seemed, would be a good choice because this sport became an Olympic sport only in 1964 at Innsbruck, Austria.
Both luge and bobsled share the same track, though starting points for the two differ, with bobsled requiring a longer starting gate and luge using a gate very similar to that of skiers.
To demonstrate their support, the Forestry Bureau, the overseer of ski operations at Hehuanshan, helped construct a "natural" track for luge and bobsled. This track was a simple 2m tunnel dug into the mountain slope extending for a total length of 1,500m and featuring an elevation drop of 300m. In winter, the track was flooded and becomes icy. The track has 12 to 15 turns and approximates conditions that Olympic luge and bobsledders face.