Will Taiwan’s Olympic win over China herald the end of ‘Chinese Taipei’?

In the hours between Taiwan winning gold and silver in Olympic badminton on the weekend, local courts in Taipei were packed with enthusiastic young players. The nail-biting matches had lit a fire of sporting patriotism – not least because both were against China, Taiwan’s goliath neighbour, which claims Taiwan as a province it must retake.

The doubles win by Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin was Taiwan’s second gold medal, after Kuo Hsing-Chun won in weightlifting, and added to its biggest medal haul in Olympic history. Taiwan sits 18th in the table. China is first. Nevertheless, social media was awash with celebrations.

In a post on Facebook, Lee dedicated the win to “my country, Taiwan”. President Tsai Ing-wen congratulated the team for “winning the first badminton gold medal in our country”. Both phrases were deliberate, and fed into a reignited debate over a decades-old rule that has forced the island’s team to compete at the Olympics under “Chinese Taipei”, a name that exists on no map.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) formally recognised Beijing over Taiwan in the 1970s, and barred Taiwan from competing under its own name or as a country.

Gold medallist Kuo Hsing-Chun competing in the weightlifting on day four of the Olympics. Photograph: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Since the 1950s, after the KMT nationalists fled the civil war on the mainland and established the Republic of China (Taiwan), the island had competed under various names and sometimes boycotted the Games, wrestling with the power of China and the IOC amid turbulent geopolitics.

In 1981, a compromise known as the Nagoya resolution was reached, and Taiwan’s athletes were allowed to compete as Chinese Taipei, with no suggestion it was a nation state.

“The debate of the sole legitimacy to represent China has been heated since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, and sports is no exception,” said Jiao Jiahong, a Taiwanese sports executive.

Today, the IOC won’t even tweet Taiwan’s flag emoji in its medal announcements.

Jiao is the deputy head of Taiwan’s football body, the Chinese Taipei Football Association, but spoke to the Guardian in a personal capacity. He said the 1981 resolution was “expedient” to the then KMT government which was still claiming to represent China, while also allowing the athletes to compete.

But times are changing, and even if the diplomatic arrangements remain the same, the Chinese Taipei requirement is being seen as increasingly anachronistic.

“The name did protect the rights of Taiwan’s participation in global sporting events, but the importance of representing the ‘real China’ has weakened as ‘Taiwan’ started to gain ground in Taiwanese people’s self-identification,” Jiao said.

It “has shifted ‘Chinese Taipei’ into a very awkward place”.

People in Taiwan increasingly identify as solely Taiwanese, as opposed to solely Chinese or both. On the Chinese Taipei team, there are also several indigenous athletes.

“We are not Chinese, not from Taipei. We are Indigenous from Taiwan,” tweeted Taiwan’s presidential spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka. “We are representing our land and winning medals at the Olympics, and celebrating Taiwan Indigenous Day [1 August].”

At any suggestion, small or large, of Taiwanese sovereignty, China forcefully objects and Taiwan celebrates.

When Japanese and Korean broadcasters referred to the team as Taiwan during official coverage of the opening ceremony and other events, it was praised in Taiwan and labelled a “dirty trick” in China. After Lee and Wang’s win, memes poked fun at the Chinese team’s failed challenge to a line call on the winning shot; people howled with mirthful outrage when one of the silver medallists congratulated their opponents as “our Taipei, China team” with three Chinese flag emojis.

Anyway, since the men’s badminton victory for Taiwan had a ball land on the line of the court, there’s a lot of jokes on the Internet that this should be the national flag of Taiwan pic.twitter.com/CTyPHyeKYH — Brian Hioe 丘琦欣 (@brianhioe) July 31, 2021

Op-eds, posts and polls proliferated, and a coalition formed saying it was time to change the name designation.

“As Taiwanese athletes are shining in the global stage, the national team should be called Taiwan,” wrote a city councillor from the ruling Democratic Progressive party, garnening thousands of likes on social media. “We could not and should not give in.”

A popular media columnist, Lu Chiu-yuan, called for a name change before the next Olympics. “Stop saying: ‘Sports is free from geopolitical influences,’ which is utterly wrong,” Lu wrote. “How submissive should one be to support such a false claim after enduring a series of humiliating incidents?”

Most of the resistance to the idea appears to be based on the fact that the repercussions could be significant. A 2018 referendum in Taiwan to push for change was vetoed after the IOC warned it could jeopardise its future participation, and some high-profile athletes – as well as Taiwan’s Olympic committee – campaigned for the no side.

The pro camp was spearheaded by Chi Cheng, a three-time Olympian who at the time described having to compete under a different name as “aggravating, humiliating and depressing”.

“Chinese Taipei is a very confusing name,” she told the Guardian. “It’s quite often our athletes are [mistakenly] recognised as Chinese contestants.”

Chi is considering launching a second referendum campaign before the 2024 Olympics in Paris, but said it wasn’t the time to discuss it during the current Games.

Jiao said the status quo was likely to remain.

“It is fair to say that as any attempt to rebrand Taiwan is a geopolitically intertwined agenda and is very unlikely to succeed, the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ has become a non-destructive, unsatisfying, but acceptable solution to every party.”