The last time Tokyo held the Olympics in 1964, Taiwan was able to compete under its own name and flag.
But that’s no longer the case.
Sixty-eight Taiwanese athletes are warming up for their Olympic events, but any victories they seize will be for “Chinese Taipei” – a country that doesn’t exist.
The flag features a small white sun on a blue circle – a symbol pulled from Taiwan’s national flag — as well as the five Olympic rings, enclosed by the outline of the national flower, Prunus mei.
It’s the result of a compromise struck decades ago, because China (officially the People’s Republic of China) doesn’t consider Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) as a country.
Neither does Australia. Under the One China policy, Australia “acknowledges” Beijing’s position that Taiwan is a province of China.
But Australia does maintain trade and economic ties, and backs Taiwan’s participation in international organisations – like the Olympics.
Known as the Nagoya Resolution, the arrangement allows Taiwanese athletes to compete internationally — but not under their own name, flag or anthem.
Edward Ling-wen Tao, the director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Brisbane — which functions as a consulate — told the ABC it was a thorny subject.
“I will say that there are a lot of people in Taiwan who believe that we should compete in another name, in our formal name or just ‘Taiwan’,” he told the ABC.
But he added it was subject to negotiation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
“We are not satisfied, but that is the reality — for now.”
The geopolitical tension appeared evident during the opening ceremony in Tokyo, when Chinese online streaming service Tencent Video stopped broadcasting and cut to a stand-up comedy clip after Japan’s public broadcaster introduced the team as Taiwan.
Tencent directed the ABC to a statement on its Weibo account when approached for comment.
The statement said they received a request from the copyright owner to stop broadcasting and take the livestream down.
“We are very sorry for bringing such [a] bad experience … we solemnly apologise.”
What’s been lost in translation?
The name offers a layer of ambiguity that allows both China and Taiwan discrete interpretations.
Beijing translates “Chinese Taipei” as “zhongguo taibei”, whereas Taipei uses “zhonghua taibei”. The first is more about the state, whereas the second indicates more of a cultural connection.
“The difference is complex and multilayered,” said Dr Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Tasmania.
“The PRC version harder, being closer in meaning to ‘China’s Taipei’, whereas the Taiwan version has a more expansive sense of Chinese identity beyond that of the PRC state.”
The sporting stoush stems from a geopolitical one — when the Chinese Communist Party defeated the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
The KMT retreated to the island of Taiwan, while the CCP established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Both claimed to be the legitimate government of China.
In 1971, the United Nations recognised the PRC as the sole representative of China, ditching Taiwan.
That gave Beijing the diplomatic clout to exclude Taiwan from international bodies, from the World Health Organization (WHO) to global beauty pageants.
In 1979, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognised the PRC, saying Taiwan could still compete if it adopted a different name and flag for the Games.
Taiwan initially refused, and boycotted the Olympics in 1976 (Canada, which hosted those Games, recognised the PRC) and in 1980.
But Taiwan reluctantly agreed to use “Chinese Taipei” in 1981, not just for the Olympics, but for other international sporting events too.
The push for ‘Team Taiwan’
In recent years, there has been a push to drop the name “Chinese Taipei” at the Olympics.
Taiwanese track and field athlete Chi Cheng, a bronze medallist in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, spearheaded the campaign, which attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures and was put to a referendum in 2018.
“We are the sole IOC member banned from using our own country’s name,” she told the Associated Press that year.
But some athletes voiced their opposition to the proposed name change, fearing they would miss out on their Olympic dreams.
At the time, Agence France-Presse reported that around 100 coaches and athletes held signs reading: “I want to join the Olympics” and “Politics should not interfere in sports”.
The IOC also warned the island that it may lose the right to compete if it tried to change its name. The ABC has contacted the IOC and the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee for comment.
The referendum was eventually defeated, although 45 per cent voted in favour of dropping the moniker “Chinese Taipei”.
The question was one of 10 put to a referendum that year, which included questions on same-sex marriage and nuclear power.
A new petition, “Let Taiwan be Taiwan”, has attracted 130,000 signatures to date.
Isolating Taiwan on the international stage
Dr Harrison said the “Chinese Taipei” designation persists in order to mollify China, and is part of a broader campaign by Beijing to isolate Taiwan.
“Beijing is constant in its efforts to exclude Taiwan from the international system … and objects very strongly to any international activity that implies that Taiwan is a state, through naming, flags and official exchanges,” Dr Harrison said.
He said that stance has not changed much in the past two years, but has become “particularly uncompromising” during the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen, and increasingly visible with the rising tensions between China and the US.
“The Taiwanese care very deeply about how they are represented internationally and have long aspired to dignity and recognition in the international system,” he said.
“Beijing is vehement in its objections, however, and while geopolitics and market access continue to shape global sport, the Taiwanese have no real alternative but to accept ‘Chinese Taipei’.”
China’s Olympic Committee and embassy in Australia have been contacted for comment.