It goes unnoticed by many, but China is competing in the Tokyo Olympics with three different teams. In addition to the Chinese delegation, there are teams from Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong.
This curious arrangement is the result of decades of diplomatic negotiations, boycotts of the Olympic Games and political disputes. The delicate balance dates back as much to the history of colonialism in China as to the country’s civil war.
In practice, it is as follows: 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 Hungarian.
If a Taiwanese athlete is at the top of the podium (or “Chinese Taipei” in the hard-negotiated denomination), the anthem played is that of the International Olympic Committee. A special flag comes into the picture, which is not what Taiwan considers its own, but which brings local references.
This special flag gained visibility – and aroused 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 the problems of the past, the arrangement highlights the challenges of contemporary China.
Object of colonial rule, 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 Olympic Games.
The situation in Hong Kong today, however, is one of the main irritants in China’s foreign relations. Several countries accuse Beijing of having adopted a law on national security which would have compromised the logic of the “two systems”.
The problem with Chinese Taipei, however, is more complicated. With the end of the civil war in 1949, the nationalist forces in Taiwan and the communist regime in Beijing fought for decades over who would be China’s rightful representative.
For the 1952 games in Helsinki, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to invite both parties. In protest, Taipei boycotted the games, while Beijing seized the opportunity. When the two were invited to the 1956 Melbourne games, it was Beijing’s turn to protest, which led to a boycott that lasted until 1980.
Over time, circumstances favored Beijing, which has seen 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 a neutral anthem.
This arrangement – acceptable but uncomfortable for both parties – is symbolic of the underlying problem. Beijing advocates reunification with the so-called rebel province, and Taipei is not interested.
Chinese officials are watching the opening of the Tokyo Olympics this Friday (23) with the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing in mind. If the pandemic was not a sufficient problem, the government must still contain the pressure to boycott its Olympics. The situation in Hong Kong, by the way, is presented as one of the reasons.
In response, Beijing said the Olympics should not be politicized. But the truth is, the history 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 in 2008.
The very history of the participation of the People’s Republic of China 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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