The bitter history of Taiwan’s participation at the Olympic Games is a long and sorry tale.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established in 1894. The same year, the first Sino-Japanese war erupted and in the following year, Taiwan was annexed by the Empire of Japan.
After the Chinese Civil War ended, Taiwan came under the rule of the Nationalist government, and even after democratization in the 1990s, it is still known as the Republic of China (ROC), and its athletes still have to compete at the Olympics under the name of “Chinese Taipei,” like second-class citizens. They cannot use their country’s name, flag or national anthem; their status at the Games is inferior to even Hong Kong or Palestinian athletes — they are essentially stateless refugees.
The shoddy treatment of Taiwan cannot solely be laid at the door of the IOC. The real culprit for this embarrassing state of affairs is Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). To give the ROC an air of legitimacy, Chiang preferred to use Taiwan as Cold War cannon fodder rather than give Taiwanese the slightest hope.
The “two Chinas” dispute has been raging ever since the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the IOC lost patience with the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) each claiming that they represented China, and demanded that Taiwan compete under the name “Formosa.”
In fact, China was even less inclined to accept the ROC competing as Formosa, but the US felt that the ROC participating as “Formosa" would pave the way for the PRC to continue competing in the Olympics without Taiwan pulling out of the games in protest.
In the end, Chiang’s government decided to stage a protest during the opening ceremony: Athletes competing under the name of Formosa marched behind a banner that read “under protest.” It was the first time in the history of the Olympics that a political battle was played out at an Olympic stadium.
At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada’s then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau refused to grant Taiwan’s team visas unless it provided a guarantee that it would not compete as the ROC. This unexpected move caused an almighty uproar for which the IOC was completely unprepared, while the US jumped up and down, accusing China and Canada of colluding to suppress Taiwan.
In the end, after a great deal of mediation between the parties, an extremely generous agreement was reached that would have allowed the ROC to compete as “Taiwan” or “Formosa,” while also being allowed to continue using the ROC flag and national anthem.
Despite strong opposition from Beijing, the plan nevertheless reflected the international reality, while also protecting the political interests of Taiwan’s ruling party and the myth of the ROC flag and national anthem. If such a deal were offered today, given the current political climate, the vast majority of Taiwanese would certainly be willing to accept it.
Unfortunately, Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) refused and withdrew completely from the Games less than 24 hours before they were due to start.
After Montreal in 1976, the ROC disappeared from the Olympics for eight years. When it returned at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 as “Chinese Taipei,” the country’s name, flag and national anthem had all vanished. China had become the only representative of China in the eyes of the IOC and the previously supportive US had re-established diplomatic relations with Beijing. Even worse, from that moment on, the world never got to see “Taiwan” at the Olympics.
As a result, it was easy for the world to turn a blind eye on Taiwan’s political transformation and the “localization” movement.
At last month’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the whole stadium rose to its feet to pay tribute to the first-ever refugee team. It is the bitterest of ironies that Taiwan’s team — stateless, deprived of its national flag and anthem — is still being ignored by the world.
During the 1970s, one of the Trudeau Cabinet’s pet slogans was the “Third Option for Canada.” Trudeau wanted to free Canada from what he saw as a geopolitical quagmire: caught in the middle in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Trudeau’s mission to obtain recognition for the PRC at the UN and eject “Free China” — Taiwan — from its seat in the General Assembly was just the beginning of his campaign to realign Canada on the world stage.
Looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, it is clear that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to use the Games to reverse Japan’s diminished status on the world stage since the end of World War II.
Since Abe’s aims are similar to Trudeau’s back in 1976, Abe might wish to emulate Trudeau and make a strong statement by calling Taiwan by its proper name during Tokyo 2020.
While in 1976, Trudeau had to face the wrath of Washington; in 2020 Abe would have to deal with an irate China. Where the situation differs from before, though, is that Abe can cite the deal the IOC reached on Taiwan’s participation in the Olympics back in 1976. It can hardly be considered a shocking decision and the IOC would find it difficult to mount a strong opposition to an offer that they themselves had previously made.
The Taiwanese public would certainly be happy to accept it.
What about Taiwan’s government? People will have to wait and see whether the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) will be willing to stand up for the rights of Taiwan and make a representation to the IOC, or whether it will simply chose to muddle along as before and maintain the “status quo.”
Li Chung-chih is a professor at Illinois State University and a member of the North America Taiwanese Professors’ Association.
Translated by Edward Jones
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