Of the several controversies that surrounded the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last month, likely none stood out to Taiwan watchers more than the conversation surrounding the confusing and inaccurate name that the island’s Olympic athletes must compete under.
The term “Chinese Taipei” came about several years after Taiwan – officially known as the Republic of China – was expelled from the United Nations in 1971, the beginning of the island’s long international isolation. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had given in to Canada’s demand to bar ROC athletes from competing in the 1976 Montreal games under the name “Taiwan.” The ROC government, then still authoritarian and determined to be considered the sole representative of China, refused – and it wasn’t until 1981 that they reached a compromise with the IOC to compete as “Chinese Taipei” at future events.
Although this topic has often been raised to some degree during Olympic games in recent years, it seemed to come in for special attention this time, with many international media outlets running stories on the history of the “Chinese Taipei” moniker. The situation received even further scrutiny after an announcer from Japanese broadcaster NHK referred to the team as “Taiwan” during a livestream of the opening ceremony.
The gesture, whether intentional or accidental, was a boost for Taiwan’s sports fans and athletes alike, and it prompted an outpouring of gratitude from Taiwanese internet users and even a subtle “thank you” from President Tsai Ing-wen.
The Olympics are among the few international spaces where Taiwan can openly express pride in the people chosen to represent it on the world stage. And there was much to be proud of this year. Taiwan finished the games with a record 12 Olympic medals, which included gold medals won by weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun and badminton doubles partners Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin. In addition, Wen Tzu-yun took home a bronze medal in karate, a sport that likely will not appear in future Olympic games.
That these world-class athletes must accept their wins under a name, flag, and anthem that are not their own in order to appease a competitor is not only demeaning and un-sportsmanlike, it could also prove increasingly dangerous for cross-Strait and regional affairs.
The world appears to be waking up to this reality. In a strongly worded segment aired on August 6, CNN political analyst John Avlon gave a dire warning about the implications of continuing to impose such a name on Taiwan, stating that “this strictly enforced erasure of a nation could be a harbinger of ugly things to come.”
“Accepting a lie doesn’t make you diplomatic; it makes you complicit,” Avlon said. “And buying into this particular lie of ‘Chinese Taipei’ could leave the international community impotent to forcefully reject if or when there’s violence in the South China Sea.”
Indeed, just days before the Olympics began, China sent a record 28 military aircraft into the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which China said was a response to a statement released at the G7 meeting in July calling for a peaceful resolution to cross-Strait tensions. That statement was an encouraging message of solidarity with and support for Taiwan and other regional allies and partners. The IOC should follow that example and allow Taiwan to compete in the Olympics under its real name.