How the Taipei Universiade is already repaying Taiwan’s investment

The Universiade already has Taiwan, and its diplomatic issues, in the international spotlight before the competition has even begun

Xinyi District leader Yu Chu-ping carries torch near Taipei 101. (By Central News Agency)

When the 29th Summer Universiade begins next weekend in Taipei, it will mark the culmination of thousands of hours of work from the various organising committees and the countless other individuals and organisations which have been involved in bringing this international event to Taiwan.

It has not all been plain sailing, with the issues around the construction of the Taipei Dome just one of the obstacles which have had to be overcome. But, for the ten days of competition, all of that will be forgotten as Taipei, and indeed Taiwan basks in the excitement of athletic competition and international attention.

As someone who lived in London during the 2012 Olympics, I can assure everyone in Taipei that, even if you are not a big sports fan, you cannot fail to feel the buzz that exudes from a city hosting such a major event.

There will inevitably be some who look cynically on the purpose of the Universiade and question whether the money that has spent on the event could not have been more practically used.  That is a debate that will continue long after the events have ended. In London, it still rages five years on.

But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Taiwan is already reaping the benefits of being hosts as, with plenty of positive international media coverage already being enjoyed in the run-up to the opening ceremony.

One story which has proved particularly popular is the Taipei MRT redesign which has seen 6 cars being decked out to represent events from the Universiade. The innovative 3D designs have been making headlines around the world with the swimming pool carriage proving most popular, no doubt thanks to the amusing images of people pretending to swim on the MRT.

Torch relays tend to be events focused on domestic audiences and there is no doubt that the Universiade relay has garnered plenty of local and national media attention in Taiwan as it has made its way around the country. But it has also caught the attention of international media as well, with the popular sports TV channel Eurosport, a FISU partner, giving it and Taiwan plenty of coverage in particular.

As the start of the Universiade approaches, more and more competing nations have been firming up their teams and this too has seen plenty of international media coverage. All over the world, whether in national or local publications, countries and cities have been feting their young athletes as they head to Taiwan to represent their homeland.  

Such media attention is a useful form of soft-diplomacy, keeping Taiwan in the public spotlight, and raising its profile as sporting and, of course, economic destination.

However, it is arguably the bigger diplomatic issues which Taiwan wrestles with, where the most benefits from hosting the Universiade have been found so far.

In particular, the question of Taiwan’s identity at national sporting events has come into the spotlight, as many unfamiliar with the name "Chinese Taipei" question why as the host country, Taiwan cannot use its own name.

The fact that Taiwan flags were to be allowed at the games did not garner too many headlines overseas, because to the informed international media, the question they would pose to that story is, "why wouldn’t they be." It did, however, get a little attention in London, where back in 2012 there was a small furore over a Taiwan flag being flown and then removed in Regents Street, ahead of the Olympics.

But the use of the name "Chinese Taipei" to replace all instances of Taiwan in the English translation of the Universiade Media Guide has attracted more attention. The reasons for this still seem open to debate, with Sports Administration Director General Lin Teh-fu rightly describing it as "very odd."

It seems that the reason for the use of the name is down to FISU rules rather than an administrative error or the Chinese team stamping their feet and demanding everyone does what they want. Some might view this issue as a negative and argue that it makes Taiwan look silly in the eyes of the world.

But for me, it is a huge positive that this issue is getting media exposure. It is absurd that Taiwan is not able to compete under its own name, flag, and national anthem at sporting events simply because China objects. The situation is doubly ridiculous when the event in question is being held in Taiwan.

But it is a situation that many outside Taiwan are totally unaware of and this story has raised awareness of one of the many ludicrous conditions Taiwan has to accept at the behest of its neighbor across the Taiwan Straits. Now a few more are in the know and with the campaign to have Taiwan competing under its proper name at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games already underway, perhaps this is one small issue where the international community might come to its senses.

Sadly, that has not happened in time for the Taipei Universiade. But nonetheless, I would urge everyone who can get tickets to go to see as many events as they can. Take your Taiwan flags with you and cheer on every "Chinese Taipei" athlete you see. It may be a "once in a lifetime opportunity" and big crowds will again reflect well on Taiwan in the international media attention the event will generate.

But most importantly, as someone who only managed to get tickets to see Iceland play France in handball at the London Olympics, and still loved every second of it, I can assure you, you will not be disappointed.