It goes unnoticed by many, but China participates in the Tokyo Olympics with three different teams. In addition to the Chinese delegation, there are teams from Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong.
The curious arrangement is the result of decades of diplomatic negotiations, boycotts of the Olympic Games and political disputes. The delicate balance goes back as much to the history of colonialism in China as to the country’s civil war.
In practice, this is the following: in the event that an athlete from Hong Kong (or “Hong Kong, China” in the official designation) wins a gold medal, the national anthem of China is played, but the flag goes up is another, the Honconguese.
If a Taiwanese athlete is at the top of the podium (or from “Chinese Taipei” in the hard-negotiated denomination), the anthem played is that of the International Olympic Committee. A special flag enters the scene, which is not what Taiwan considers to be its own, but brings local references.
This special flag gained visibility –and generated curiosity– at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when taekwondo won two gold medals for Chinese Taipei. In addition to the Olympic rings, the flag contains the image of the white sun against a blue sky, typical of pre-communist China and used to this day in Taipei.
While reflecting issues of the past, the arrangement highlights challenges in contemporary China.
The object of colonial domination, Hong Kong was returned to China by the British in 1997. The formula “one country, two systems”, agreed in the context of the return, serves as a basis for Hong Kong to participate with its own delegation in the Olympics.
The situation in Hong Kong today, however, is one of the main irritants in China’s foreign relations. Several countries criticize Beijing for adopting a national security law that would have compromised the “two systems” logic.
The issue with Chinese Taipei, however, is more complicated. With the end of the civil war in 1949, nationalist forces in Taiwan and the communist regime in Beijing fought for decades over who would be the legitimate representative of China.
For the 1952 games in Helsinki, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to invite both sides. In protest, Taipei boycotted the games, while Beijing seized the opportunity. When both were invited to the 1956 games in Melbourne, it was Beijing’s turn to protest, leading to a boycott that lasted until 1980.
Over time, circumstances favored Beijing, which saw a growing number of countries recognize its authority. It was in this context that, in 1979, the IOC defined the rules providing for the name of “Chinese Taipei” for the island, in addition to a special flag and neutral anthem.
This arrangement –acceptable but uncomfortable for both sides– is symbolic of the underlying problem. Beijing defends reunification with the so-called rebel province, and Taipei is not interested.
Chinese officials watch the opening of the Tokyo Olympics this Friday (23) with their minds on the 2022 winter games in Beijing. If the pandemic weren’t enough of a problem, the government still needs to contain pressure to boycott its Olympics. The situation in Hong Kong, by the way, is presented as one of the reasons.
In response, Beijing has said that the Olympics should not be politicized. But the truth is that the story of the Olympics is different. The games have already been associated with Nazism, terrorist attacks, the dynamics of the Cold War and even marked the rise of China as a power in 2008.
The very history of the People’s Republic of China’s participation in the Olympics shows that politics and sports competition always walk, run and swim together. Whoever manages to separate them deserves a medal.
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