Taiwan Scores Big as Universiade Host

Participants and the organizer were impressed with the warm reception and efficient organization they found here.

Taiwan excels in hospitality, as anyone who has visited or lived in the country knows. Being a good host to guests from abroad, whether they’re Taroko-bound tourists or delegates to a biotech conference, seems to be hard-wired into the DNA of most Taiwanese.

Efforts by China to isolate Taiwan in the global arena, including exclusion from the United Nations and other international organizations, may not be the source of the country’s hospitality, but it certainly seems to add to a sense of gratitude to all who visit. That visitors return home speaking of the charms of one of East Asia’s less-frequented destinations is a source of pride for many Taiwanese.

Taiwan’s bronze-medal-winning 100-meter relay team.

Given that background, it’s difficult to overstate the significance of the Taipei Universiade that Taiwan hosted August 19-30. More than 10,000 delegates from around the globe descended upon northern Taiwan for two weeks for the largest event the country has ever held. Even before the closing ceremony on August 30, there was no doubt that Taiwan had passed the Universiade test with flying colors. Athletes, spectators, volunteers, the media, and the International University Sports Federation (FISU), which organizes the event, were all enthusiastic about the level of quality.

“From an organizational point of view, it’s been fantastic,” said Eric Saintrond, FISU Secretary General and CEO. He told Taiwan Business TOPICS that the 2017 Taipei Universiade exceeded his expectations in virtually every way – and he’s seen a lot of Universiades. The Taipei Universiade was Saintrond’s 32nd for FISU, including 16 summer games and 16 winter games.

Support for team USA.

The organizers held meetings every morning at the Grand Hyatt Taipei, which served as FISU’s operational headquarters, to discuss performance from a variety of perspectives, he said. Other than a few minor complaints in the first two days regarding transportation and food & beverage issues, the operational performance of the 29th Summer Universiade was “perfect,” he said.

Speaking at the Taipei Universiade’s closing ceremony, FISU President Oleg Matytsin told a packed Taipei Stadium: “Our student athletes came here to Taipei from all over the world. And when they came to train and compete, they found excellent conditions for sport.”

“The best performances happen when there is a crowd filled with passion to lift up the athletes,” Matytsin said. “That is exactly what FISU found for every sport in Taipei. The crowds had a great knowledge of sport. They made so much noise for the athlete in first place. And they made the same noise for the athlete in last place.”

Other FISU staff that spoke with TOPICS noted the surprising number of Taiwanese spectators who stuck around for the medal ceremonies, often well after the end of competitions, even when Taiwanese athletes were not on the podium.

Of the numerous events that this reporter attended, not only was there a striking number of spectators in the stands – most events were filled to capacity or close to it – but the energy with which they cheered all athletes, even those competing against Taiwanese athletes, was equally noteworthy.

The end result was a high level of competition that produced two world records and 36 Universiade records. But what may have been the biggest surprise, for both Taiwanese and international spectators, was the performance of Taiwanese athletes.

By the end of competition, Team Taiwan – forced under International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules to compete under the name “Chinese Taipei” – had placed third in the medal count, with 26 gold, 34 silver, and 30 bronze. Only Japan, which is preparing to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, and South Korea finished with more medals than Taiwan, and only by slight margins. Few people were expecting Taiwan to win more medals than the United States or the Russian Federation, who finished fourth and fifth respectively, but that’s exactly what happened.

The Taiwanese medalists, many of whom are likely to represent Taiwan in Tokyo in 2020, instantly became homegrown heroes. Among them is weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun, who broke a decade-old world record in the women’s 58-kilogram clean and jerk, and Cheng Chao-tsun, who won gold in the men’s javelin, defeating expected victor Andreas Hofmann of Germany in dramatic fashion. Hofmann was one of several athletes who became social media celebrities in Taiwan during the 12 days of competition.

Weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun of Taiwan took the gold medal and set a world record in the women’s 58-kg clean and jerk competition.

“It was crazy,” said Hofmann at the Taipei Universiade’s final press conference. “The competition, the result, and the experience I had competing here were great, just great.”

Early uncertainties

In retrospect it might seem easy to say that of course Taiwan would be an excellent Universiade host. But there were plenty of concerns before the start of the competition, including the status of ticket sales, which several news outlets were reporting as dismal. One reason for the slow sales might have been the somewhat delayed posting of event schedules online.

Another source of worry was the massive power outage that occurred on August 15, only four days before the opening ceremony. Taiwan’s power grid had been nearly maxed out for weeks amid a major heat wave. Would an energy-intensive event spread across 14 venues in four cities be able to go off without a hitch?

Then, of course, there was the incident at Taipei Stadium on August 19 in which anti-pension-reform activists disrupted the parade of athlete delegations into the stadium for the opening ceremony with a fracas that involved the detonation of a smoke bomb and the assault of a police officer. The question arose of whether Taiwan has what it takes to maintain safety for athletes and spectators.

All of these uncertainties were quickly put to rest. When the parade of delegates into the opening ceremony resumed – after attendees had waited patiently for half an hour – the ensuing rousing performance that highlighted Taiwan’s unique origins and culture mesmerized the audience in the stadium, as well as the countless people around the country watching the televised broadcast.

Worries about ticket sales quickly evaporated. Perhaps many people had simply been waiting to make informed decisions about which events to attend. After all, getting a ticket was as easy as going to the closest 7-Eleven and purchasing via Ibon. For others it may have been the realization that the Universiade was indeed the biggest international event that Taiwan has ever hosted, worth their attending to help present the best face possible to the world. There may even have been spectators who wanted to make up for the poor behavior of the protestors who interrupted the opening ceremony.

Regardless, in the end the total number of tickets sold exceeded 700,000, far eclipsing the expectations of the Taipei city government, which co-organized the Universiade with FISU. You Shih-Ming, the city’s deputy finance commissioner and deputy CEO of Taipei’s Universiade Organizing Committee, said that the ticket revenue came to NT$140 million, more than double the initial target of NT$67 million. According to FISU, more than US$1 million worth of merchandising, much of it featuring the games’ mascot Bravo the Bear, was sold at stalls outside of competition venues.

In addition to ticket and merchandise sales, the influx of visitors from abroad provided knock-on benefits to Taiwan’s economy. Many of the athletes and their relatives and supporters traveled around the country before or after the games, spending money at hotels, restaurants, and, yes, night markets.

Soft power dividend

When weighing the benefits of the Universiade to Taiwan, it is also worthwhile to look at non-economic considerations. Due to the country’s complicated international status, many people who have never been here may believe it to be a Chinese territory. Through the Universiade, not only did more than 10,000 people get a first-hand look at Taiwan, but they shared their experiences with friends, family, and even strangers via social media.

Visiting Taiwan from New Jersey with friends to support the French baseball team, Jennifer Hutchinson said she was highly impressed with the facilities and athletes village at this year’s Universiade. Even more impressive, she said, was the friendliness and hospitality of the Taiwanese people – some of whom became friends with her and her entourage after France’s come-from-behind victory against Taiwan at Tienmu Stadium.

U.S. baseball team starting pitcher Sammy Lizarraga.

“I never would have imagined the Taiwanese people to be so incredibly warm and welcoming,” Hutchinson said. “I’d always thought of Prague as the most hospitable city I’d ever been to, but Taipei has unequivocally surpassed it and all others.”

After returning to the United States, Hutchinson said she found herself in New York City the same weekend as a march in support of Taiwan’s independence and inclusion in the United Nations. She joined the march for a few blocks and spoke with Taiwanese participants in what she described as a “heartwarming follow-up” to her trip.

Taiwan evidently made a deep impression on athletes and other delegates as well. One of the most visible examples was when Argentinian athletes carried a Republic of China flag as they entered Taipei Stadium for the closing ceremony. The gesture drew a warm response from the crowd – but an official reprimand afterward from FISU for violating IOC protocol.

Matt Painter, head coach of the Purdue University men’s basketball team, which represented the United States and won a silver medal in Taipei, posted a personal message of thanks to the people of Taipei on Twitter. “You treated every visitor and athlete that visited your great city with a tremendous amount of respect, while taking pride in everything you did,” Painter wrote. “It was an incredible experience for our team. We will remember this trip for a long time, and the bond we created with your great city.”

Aside from athlete delegations and supporters, journalists from around the world also attended the Taipei Universiade. The media attention also carried obvious benefits for Taiwan, which often suffers from foreign news reports parroting Beijing’s view of the island.

“Overall the experience was great,” said Montreal-based sports journalist Salim Valji who was visiting Taiwan – and Asia – for the first time. “The volunteers were extremely friendly, the games felt like a first-class experience, and it was nice to see the city embrace the event for the two weeks.”

Valji said the high degree of visibility of the Universiade everywhere he went was especially impressive. “A couple of times, I picked random train stations to hop off at, and there were often signs promoting events,” he said. “Even at a couple of bars that I went to, the Games were on the TV.”

When Taipei was awarded the 2017 Summer Universiade hosting rights in 2011, it had already unsuccessfully applied to host the event four times before. One of the factors that helped push it past Brasilia this time was tacit support from China, which presumably sought to reward then-president Ma Ying-jeou for embracing the “One China principle.”

Given that president Tsai Ing-wen appears unlikely to yield to Chinese demands that Taiwan consider itself part of “one China,” the odds of Beijing supporting Taiwan to host similar international events in the future are likely close to nil, at least during the current administration.

However, the genie may be out of the bottle. China is influential, yes, but despite its limited participation in this year’s Summer Universiade – it sent individuals but not teams – everyone involved seemed to view the games as a success. “In Taipei, the competition management was some of the best I’ve ever seen,” FISU president Matytsin said at the games’ final press conference.

FISU was not the only major sporting association represented at the Taipei Universiade. Five IOC members attended the games, as did NCAA President Mark Emmert, who also spoke at the FISU World Conference.

Matytsin noted that the Universiade aside, FISU also hosts world championships in many individual sports. He appeared upbeat when discussing the possibility of a FISU return to Taipei in the coming years. “I see a very promising future,” he said.