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Minority Report: The Olympics – Beauty and Politics

I love the Olympics. Every second of it. Every bout, match, dive, set, routine, race, swim and ride. I keep score as each point, goal, bucket and bullseye rolls in. There is no sport I will not watch. The more obscure the better. What is dressage? Horse Dancing? Yes please. Do I want to learn the rules of skeet shooting? You bet I do. Will I stay up to see if GB can battle to a bronze in badminton? Definitely.

I love how you can sit down – knowing nothing about an event – and soon be discussing it with the family like a grizzled coach:

“Yeah he’s about to attempt a double-pike with inverted rotation from the 10 meter platform. [pause as you reach for crisps and beer] High degree of difficulty this, and that chap from Vanuatu has just put in a classy dive. The judges will deffo reward his execution. He’s going to medal”. 

That’s another thing I love: using ‘medal’ as a verb. 

But what I love most is the same thing that makes all sport great. The passion and the pain. The tears of joy and anguish. The admiration for athletes who are the best at what they do, who have sacrificed so much in order to perform on the biggest stage of all. 

Sport is a vessel, into which we can pack and fold all of our own struggles and hopes. We watch a match, a race, and we see a story play out. A battle reaches its conclusion. We see an athlete face the odds, see off their foes, and triumph. To cross that line as champion, they will – however briefly – have vanquished their own doubts and fears, as we all hope to do. Each journey to Olympic success is a miniature life, with its own pitfalls and peaks. There are narratives here that we all understand. So each victory holds sweetness that we can all taste. 

And we see what four – or even five – years of sweat and effort means. What can be achieved with such focus and drive. As each record falls, and new ones are set, we witness astonishing feats of strength and speed, grace and poise. Those achievements remind us of the staggering enormity of our potential as people. What really can be done if we put our mind to things. 

In these times of perpetual, collective self-doubt – where the very word human can seem tainted with pollution, corruption and spite – we need more than ever to be reminded of the sheer beauty of our species. What better way to glimpse that beauty than in the explosive stride of a sprinter, the sublime twirl of a gymnast, the arc of an arrow into the centre of a target. 

Is it any wonder it’s so inspiring. So beautiful and raw. It is just sport, but it’s so much more. 

The Olympic ideal has always been an apolitical one, often pitched as an idyllic pause button on constant interstate competition. A chance to swap a ballistic-missile tally for a medal tally. To exchange tense trade negotiations for ping-pong. And in the process, to forget the endless international argy-bargy, and all become best mates. 

That’s always been the ideal. Often it’s not the reality. Sometimes politics is inherent to the competition. This was the case during the men’s team archery contest.

Archery is akin to a religion in some parts of east-Asia. Chinese, Japanese and Korean shooters have always performed well. Last Monday, the Chinese men’s team faced off against another east-Asian side in a quarterfinal. Their opponent was Taiwan. 

Except the athletes from Taiwan were not referred to as such. They – like all elite sportspeople from the island of Formosa – were representatives of ‘Chinese Taipei’. This piece of Frankenstein nomenclature – conjoining ‘Chinese’ with Taiwan’s capital city – was concocted in the aftermath of Taiwan’s ejection from the United Nations in 1971, and its replacement by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole UN representative of Chinese territory. That incident is still one of the most shameful in UN history. It solved nothing of the dispute between Taiwan and the People’s Republic, merely stripping international representation from one and handing it to the other. 

Since then, the dictatorial government of the PRC has ruthlessly enforced its ‘One-China Policy’. It leverages its economic and diplomatic heft to demand that other states and supranational bodies – including the International Olympic Committee – accede to the obviously false assertion that Taiwan is part of a ‘single China’: The People’s Republic. Usually, they get their way. 

And so the athletes representing an independent island democracy of 24 million people, must – while they compete – bear the name of a state which does not exist. You will not find ‘Chinese Taipei’ on any maps. And that of course, is the point. The mainland government claims Taiwan as its 23rd province. Consequently, Taiwan cannot be allowed to act like an independent country. Even though it is. 

Insofar as is possible, the PRC’s diplomatic tenacity has succeeded in scrubbing away an entire sporting nation. Taiwan’s athletes may not fly their national flag. Their national anthem is not played for their Olympic champions. And they must compete under a name which manages to imply that they are already the subjects of the Chinese Communist Party. 

But occasionally the athletes of China and Taiwan meet on the sports field. And then the PRC’s facade of a single China, governed from Beijing, falls away. 

This was the case last Monday, when a trio of archers from ‘Chinese Taipei’ – Tang Chih-Chun, Wei Chun-Heng and Deng Yu-Cheng – knocked out their Chinese opponents in straight sets. They went on to win silver. 

One can only imagine the cognitive dissonance induced by defeat to a country which you claim does not exist (or worse, which you claim is actually part of your own country). In order to keep the ludicrous ‘One-China’ facade alive, the Chinese would have to believe one of two things. That they had been defeated by themselves – like a boxer who manages to punch himself cold. Or that – like the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus – they had been trounced by nobody at all. Neither seems very dignified. 

But then the whole sham surrounding Taiwan’s international status is devoid of dignity. The fact that Taiwan is an independent nation, with its own elections, president, military and highly developed economy, is plain for all to see. But China’s diplomatic bullying has forced most countries to pretend that none of this matters. The Communist Party has succeeded in imposing an enormous collective lie upon the world. Thank goodness sport can still show us how mad the lie really is. 

Illustration by Oliver Buckingham