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Sebra Yen is Ya-Hui Chiu intern at the Global Taiwan Institute. He recently graduated with an MA in Asian Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs. He formerly represented Taiwan as a figure skater and was selected to compete at the 2009 Winter Universiade.
Given Taiwan’s exclusion from key international organizations, sports diplomacy can be an impactful tool in strengthening its relations with the world. Taiwan’s unique diplomatic situation in the international community and limited number of official diplomatic allies has pushed the island nation to use creative strategies to project itself globally. Following Panama’s diplomatic switch to China, President Tsai Ing-wen appointed seven ambassadors-at-large (無任所大使) to promote Taiwan’s culture, which includes a former Olympic medalist to advocate for Taiwan’s sports culture. Another powerful way to bolster Taiwan’s international presence is the upcoming 2017 Summer Universiade (2017年夏季世界大學運動會), or the World Summer University Games, which was held in Taipei from August 19-30.
Using sports as a public diplomacy strategy provides nations with opportunities to strengthen and expand communication with foreign audiences. While the original intent of the Olympic Games was to serve as a truce mechanism for nations to bond in order to foster world peace and understanding during times of war and violence, Taiwan’s use of sports diplomacy is different. For Taiwan, opportunities to cooperate or have meaningful dialogue with foreign countries continue to be limited because of the China factor, and so strengthening global ties through sports—which are less sensitive than politics—is important for maintaining and expanding Taiwan’s international space. Beijing’s opting out of sending Chinese athletes to group events in the upcoming games demonstrates the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) intent to politicize the event and sideline Taiwan. As a result, large-scale sporting events for Taiwan provide the opportunity for outreach to the international community, which is largely unaware of Taiwan’s marginalized role. Capitalizing on the common passion shared by athletes and sports fans worldwide will cultivate mutual respect and understanding, and a successful games put on by Taiwan will leave a memorable impression on athletes.
In the past, Taiwan has hosted several major international competitions, including the 2009 Summer Deaflympics in Taipei, the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung, and many other sporting events like the 2017 World Junior Figure Skating Championships earlier this year. The Summer Universiade, though, is second to the Olympic Games in terms of size and will be the largest sporting event Taiwan has ever hosted. This year’s Taiwanese team was the largest in Universiade history, with a total of 368 Taiwanese athletes competing across 21 different sports. Taiwan’s team was one of the 131 teams representing a total of 7,389 athletes from around the world. The opening ceremony, closing ceremony, and over 19,000 international and local volunteers for the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade served as a platform to showcase Taiwan’s diverse peoples and culture to the world, including snacks made by disabled individuals and a solar-powered robots performance to highlight Taiwan’s sustainable technology.
The games were not without their challenges. Critics have been skeptical about the organizing committee’s ability to market the event domestically, as a poll conducted by Taipei City’s Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission (臺北市政府研究發展考核委員會) stated that almost 64 percent of respondents have no interest in the games, and over 68 percent have no interest in purchasing tickets for the opening or closing ceremonies. In July 2017, the closing ceremony only sold 10 percent of its tickets, and other sports events have only sold about 10-40 percent of their available tickets. Additionally, Taiwan’s exclusion from the International Police Organization (INTERPOL) may raise concerns about the safety of the summer university games as perceived by the international community. As a non-member of INTERPOL, Taiwan is vulnerable to threats given its lack of access to the I-24/7 system, which lists suspicious persons and criminals. Moreover, critics say that the increase of radicalization of people in Southeast Asia by ISIS makes Taiwan—given its high number of migrant workers from this region—a target for foreign terror.
Despite these challenges, Taiwan has ramped up its marketing strategies and security measures. Aside from the torch relay campaign to promote visibility, Taiwan has developed limited edition stamps to brand the event, as well as a stamp exhibition that showcases international sports development and Taiwanese athletes, to garner more attention. Taiwan has also attracted international attention by redesigning its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains into sports venues. Specifically, six-car trains have had their interior design revamped to include swimming pools and running tracks, in order to generate excitement by recreating Universiade venues in everyday public spaces. In regards to countering potential threats, Taiwan’s Ministry of Interior has established a central command center according to the strict standards of the International University Sports Federation (FISU) to coordinate security efforts between the local and central levels of government.
Sports diplomacy is an alternative way to reinforce Taiwan’s quest for international space. The large number of athletes traveling to Taiwan for the games will have a chance to experience Taiwan’s culture and, most importantly, to experience Taiwan in its own right. Likewise, the summer university games also provide an opportunity for Taiwanese people to have additional cultural exchanges with the global community. While the event has faced challenges in marketing to its domestic and international audiences, steps have been taken to address those issues. Moreover, with Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) standing up to China’s insistence upon referring to President Tsai Ing-wen as “leader” instead of “president”—along with the opportunity for Taiwanese people to use Taiwan’s national flag at the event—this Universiade gives the Taiwanese people a rare opportunity to be proud of where they come from, with the international spotlight on their own homeland.
Despite early disruptions, the sporting event ended on an overall positive note. In addition to the Taiwanese team securing third place overall in the medal rankings, FISU President Oleg Matytsin stated that the event was successful and thanked the people involved in the process. During the closing ceremony, athletes from various countries even draped Taiwan’s national flag over their shoulders in solidarity and support of Taiwan’s presence on the international stage. Without a doubt, this gathering provided a platform for Taiwanese and global citizens to have meaningful exchange, and the memories and human connections made have instilled confidence and perhaps segues into more successful international events held by Taiwan in the future.
(Feature image of 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei, from Taipei City Government)
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