Taipei Preparing for its Universiade Moment

The 12-day competition in August will be largest sporting event ever hosted in Taiwan. 

Rarely does Taiwan have a moment to bask in the international spotlight, but a major such opportunity is coming this summer.

From August 19 to 30, Taipei and neighboring cities will host the 29th Summer Universiade. Given that Taiwan inhabits a diplomatic no-man’s-land, this will be the biggest international event it has ever hosted, offering a chance to raise Taipei’s profile as a global city and enhance Taiwan’s reputation as a tourist destination.

To appreciate how rarely Taiwan gets to host such occasions, consider that previous contenders for the biggest international events held here include the 2010 Taipei International Flora Expo, the 1948 Taiwan Province Expo, and – going back to the Japanese colonial era when Taipei was known as Taihoku – the Taiwan Exhibition of 1935.

Universiade, a name coined by combining the words “university” and “Olympiad,” has been organized by the Swiss-based International University Sports Federation (FISU) every other year since 1959. The Summer Universiade, which ranks as the second-largest multisport event in the world, exceeded only by only the Summer Olympics, will be the first large-scale international athletic competition that Taiwan has ever hosted.

When Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je opens the games in August, over 12,000 athletes, coaches, and staff from 145 countries are expected to be on hand for competition in 22 sports categories, according to the organizers. That’s even more than the total participants in last year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The Universiade will enable spectators in Taiwan to view a high level of athletic competition. Roughly half of Olympic medalists have previously participated in a Universiade, notes You Shih-Ming, deputy finance commissioner of the Taipei city government, who is serving as deputy CEO of Taipei’s Universiade organizing committee.

Speaking at an Amcham Taipei luncheon on March 30, You described the extensive efforts the organizing committee has made to ensure the success of the games, as well as to provide a legacy that will last beyond this year’s event.

In November 2011, FISU announced that its decision to award the 2017 Universiade to Taipei, which was competing against Brasilia, Brazil for hosting rights. Given that another Brazilian city, Rio de Janeiro, was preparing to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, Taipei’s successful candidacy was far from guaranteed, You says. “Brasilia was a very strong candidate,” he notes. “We were lucky to win the rights to host this event.”

Taipei then put together a staff of more than 600 personnel to work on the project, most of them full-time. Their objective is to ensure that this summer’s Universiade goes off without a hitch, in hope that a successful event will lead to similar opportunities in the future. “We want to demonstrate to the world that Taipei has the capability to host large events like this,” You says.

It is no small task. All told, the 2017 Universiade will require 79 venues for competition and training. The majority of these facilities are in Taipei and New Taipei City, but some are as far away as Taoyuan, Hsinchu City, and Hsinchu County. Fourteen universities across northern Taiwan are involved in this collective effort, both as venues and sources of volunteers.

More than US$100 million has been spent on refurbishing and upgrades for the 38 competition venues and 41 training facilities, including work on 10 soccer fields and a revamped Tianmu Baseball Stadium, which received an NT$120 million facelift.

The basketball stadium (left) and tennis center. Photos courtesy of Taipei Universiade.

There has also been construction of new facilities that will be available for use after the Universiade. One example is the new Taipei City Tennis Center on Minquan East Road, which was built on the grounds of a closed primary school. The center has a seating capacity of 15,000, and it is hoped that after the curtain falls on this year’s Universiade it will be able to host both ATP and WTA tennis tournaments.

The more than 11,000 athletes will be housed at the Athletes’ Village at Linkou. The location is critical, as FISU rules mandate that the Athletes’ Village be located no more than 60 minutes from all competition venues. You notes that special consideration went into planning the village, including easy-to-overlook details such as the need to provide longer beds for the tall basketball and volleyball players. Various dietary requirements were also given attention when deciding the village’s dining hall menu. In addition to highlighting traditional Taiwanese dishes such as xiaolongbao dumplings, roast duck, and glutinous rice balls in soup, athletes will have a wide selection of international, halal, vegetarian, and vegan eating options from which to choose.

Everything on schedule

This past March, Summer Universiade director Marc Vandenplas led an 11-member delegation to Taiwan to tour the Athletes’ Village and competition venues to ensure that all facilities would be ready for opening day. Also discussed were budgetary matters, plans for the opening and closing ceremonies, and logistical details such as the catering and interpretation services. Vandenplas publicly praised the organizing committee for both its preparation and its candor, which he said exceeded that of previous hosts.

Many other visitors have been in and out of Taiwan in recent months to work on preparations for August’s events. Among them has been Nels Hawkinson, deputy head of delegation for Team USA. This year will be Hawkinson’s fourth Universiade – he previously was in charge of all logistics for the 2011 games in Shenzhen, China, as well as the 2013 games in Kazan, Russia and the 2015 games in Gwangju, South Korea.

Taiwan’s organizing committee has had several opportunities to see first-hand what is involved in hosting a Universiade. It sent delegations to observe the Universiades held two years ago in South Korea and four years ago in Russia.

Hawkinson has made four trips to Taiwan in the past year to meet with organizing committee officials, government leaders, and the American Institute in Taiwan. After inspecting the different venues, he says he was highly impressed with the level of organization and preparedness.

“It’s amazing to me that Taiwan has not hosted any major international event before, as it has great infrastructure in place to pull this off successfully,” Hawkinson says. “This will be their greatest challenge ever, and I know they will be prepared and it will be a huge success.”

Hawkinson predicts that Taiwan will also be among the top medal winners this year, along with Team USA and competitors from Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea. He considers Taiwan as likely to excel in baseball, women’s basketball, and martial arts, while Team USA is strongest in swimming and basketball. You adds that he expects Taiwan to be particularly competitive in badminton and weightlifting.

The foreign athletes coming to Taiwan – and their friends, family, and supporters accompanying them – are likely to have many questions regarding food, language, local culture, and places to go and things to see, Hawkinson says. This is where Taiwan’s extensive support preparations will hopefully be helpful.

Taipei Universiade’s main operation center will be located at Taipei Arena, but for athletes the main interface with the organizing committee will be the 18,000 volunteers who have been enlisted to help ensure everything goes smoothly. Among these volunteers are 11,600 Taiwanese students, 6,000 other members of the local community, and nearly 300 international volunteers residing in Taiwan.

Health and safety are also important issues for international events such as these, and the organizing committee has worked to make sure that crucial infrastructure and measures are in place for any potential problems that arise, from a sprained ankle to a terrorist attack.

A total of 39 designated hospitals across northern Taiwan will serve the games, offering medical services, sports physiotherapy, and even Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments such as cupping, which received global attention at the Olympics in Rio courtesy of swimmer Michael Phelps.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je during his temple tour asking for good weather in August. Photo: Taipei City Government.

Besides being a hot month, August also has the potential to bring destructive and disruptive typhoons. While medical staff will be available for athletes exhibiting signs of heat-related problems – and Taipower is working to make sure that there will be sufficient electricity for all the air-conditioning units in the Athletes’ Village – there is little any government can do about the weather. Nevertheless, Mayor Ko visited temples around Taipei in January, making offerings and asking the gods for good weather during the games.

Security planning has been a top priority for the government. On April 15, the Office of Homeland Security under the Executive Yuan said that in the event of a major security breach or terrorist attack during the Universiade, an emergency response mechanism will be activated. A first-tier response center will be headed by the Vice Premier, while a second-tier response center will be led by the Minister of the Interior.

TRAINING EXERCISE — Police, firefighters, and military units will be mobilized for any emergencies. Photo: Taipei City Government.

Numerous rehearsals coordinating military, police, and medical units have been held in recent months, including a simulated hostage negotiation situation involving the buses that will be used to transport athletes. Drills have featured the use of hardware ranging in size from flash grenades to Black Hawk helicopters.

“For You, For Youth”

The motto for the Taipei Universiade 2017 is “For You, For Youth,” implying that the benefits of the event will be enjoyed not only by the athletes, but by residents of the host cities. The most immediate of these benefits will be the opportunity to see world-class athletes – including future Olympic champions – compete in Taiwan.

Universiade tickets will go on sale in June, with competition tickets priced at NT$200 to NT$300 for four days of events, You said. Opening ceremony tickets will be priced higher at NT$1,000 for regular seats and NT$10,000 for VIP seating. All told, there will be 750,000 tickets available, he said, expressing his hope that local and foreign businesses operating in Taiwan will purchase tickets in bulk for their employees and encourage attendance to promote the success of the games.

As noted in the international media, Olympic host cities in recent years have lost quite a bit of money in putting on the event, and the expensive stadiums and other facilities that were built often saw little use once the games were over. Universiade’s smaller size and more distributed approach to competition venues are expected not only to avoid those problems but in fact to create new or improved facilities that will benefit universities, schools, and communities for years to come.

An example is Taipei’s Heping Elementary School, which will gain a new gymnasium and basketball court with seating for 7,000. Developed with sustainability in mind, the facility has been equipped with smart green features including a rain-collecting roof.

One of the goals of the organizing committee is transforming Taipei into a greener and more sustainable city, including the provision of increased green space and walking/cycling paths.

“All of these things, in addition to a successful Universiade event, will certainly propel the attitude of living healthy further along,” says the head of operations for Anytime Fitness Taiwan, who goes by the name of Mr. DK. “I love exercise and playing outside, and for those reasons Taiwan is a great place to live.”

An additional benefit for Taiwan from the Universiade will be an increase in the quantity of public housing, which is in short supply here. Public housing currently accounts for only 0.08% percent of Taiwan’s housing supply, compared with 5% in the United States and 29% in Hong Kong. After the Universiade has ended, the Athletes’ Village will be converted into public housing.

The event will leave northern Taiwan more wired than before, as more than 4,900 new Wifi hotspots are being installed in preparation for the games. International tourism to Taiwan – which set a new record with more than 10.7 million visitors last year – is also expected to receive a welcome boost, according to Cheng Ing-hui, deputy director of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s international section. Besides the athletes themselves, many of their relatives and classmates will come to Taiwan for the competition.

“We hope these participants and visitors from all over the world will use their time in Taiwan after their competition to explore both northern Taiwan and further afield,” Cheng said. “I’m confident that if they do, they’ll be moved by the friendliness and helpful attitude of the Taiwanese people, and return home with a good impression that makes them want to return again in the future. It should have an all-around positive impact on our country’s international tourism market.”

For Taiwan, which has learned to live with being almost invisible internationally, Universiade appears to be a one-of-a-kind opportunity to raise its profile. Noting the unifying power of , Hawkinson expresses confidence that Taiwan will rise to the occasion. “Taiwan needs to – and will – take advantage of this special opportunity,” he says.

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