Taiwan in spotlight as World University Games host

Its biggest global event is kicking off, but has been marred by politics

Taiwan will this evening officially open an event dubbed the Olympics for university students, its biggest global event yet with some 12,000 participants.

Yet what many locals had thought would be a rare chance for the diplomatically isolated island to bask in the global limelight has been marred by politics as usual.

The host island may have the biggest squad out of the 142 teams competing in the 29th Summer Universiade, also known as the World University Games, but its 368 athletes will not be able to do what most take for granted.

The Taiwanese contingent will not be able to fly the island's flag or sing its anthem, but have to march under the name of Chinese Taipei, rather than Taiwan or the Republic of China, as it is formally known.

This stems from how Beijing sees the island as part of its territory and objects to any official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Since 1984, Taiwan has taken part in the Olympic Games as Chinese Taipei.

This time round, many Taiwanese feel especially upset as they believe Taiwan is being belittled though it is hosting its biggest global event. "We shouldn't be made to feel ashamed of our history and identity... It is one of the rare moments that Taiwan is in the spotlight," said account manager Karen Chiu, 32, who plans to display the Taiwan flag at the opening ceremony at Taipei Municipal Stadium.

There was talk of boycotts earlier.

China is allowing its athletes to take part in individual events, but will sit out the team sports. Earlier, Uganda said it might pull out to respect the "One China" policy, but Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed on Thursday that the African nation will take part.

The Universiade, held every two years in summer and winter, can trace its history to a precursor event called the International Universities Championships held in Paris in 1923. Thailand, South Korea and China have all hosted the event in the last decade.

Only 45 per cent of the 700,000 tickets at the NT17.2 billion (S$773 million) event have been sold as of yesterday.

Another dampener - recent polls show six in 10 Taipei residents are not enthusiastic about the event.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, chairman of the Universiade organising committee, has been appearing in the media and at events to promote the Games every day in the last two weeks.

Asked about the political controversies marring the event, Ms Su Li-chiung, who is overseeing the preparations for the Universiade as the chief executive officer, said: "We have to accept our circumstances with serenity. I hope that we can call a timeout on politics and just focus on the sports."

She added: "We need to move on and show that we can punch above our weight and pull off a show that best represents the Taiwan spirit and resilience."

Star Taiwanese athletes competing at the event include weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner, and top female badminton player Tai Tzu-ying.

Singapore is fielding 71 athletes in 11 events, including table tennis and archery.

Sales manager Chester Tsai, 45, is focused on the sports and not the politics. Mr Tsai, who has bought tickets for the swimming and badminton competitions, said: "If our sportsmen and women are going all out to do their best despite the odds, we should not let them down and should show up to cheer them on even more loudly."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwan in spotlight as World University Games host'. Print Edition | Subscribe