Four Taiwanese athletes are competing in Beijing’s Winter Olympics, but they will not be announced as coming from Taiwan.

Tsai Ing-wen Olympics Chinese Taipei Taiwan
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves a Chinese Taipei flag at a flag presentation ceremony on July 12, 2021. Photo: Wang Yu Ching/Office of the President, Taiwan, via Flickr.

In what is a source of frustration to many Taiwanese, the world has long heard them announced as coming from “Chinese Taipei” in major sporting events.

Here’s why:

What’s in a name?

Taiwan has been given a host of names at the Olympics over the years because of its peculiar international status.

Despite being a self-ruled democracy of 23 million people with its own borders, currency and government, Taiwan is not diplomatically recognised by most countries. 

After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, the Nationalists and their Republic of China government fled to Taiwan.

Mao’s communist forces founded the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.

Beijing’s communist leadership has never controlled Taiwan, but it still views the island as part of “one China” and has vowed to seize it one day, by force if necessary. 

Beijing tries to keep Taipei isolated on the world stage and baulks at use of the word Taiwan.

Why ‘Chinese Taipei’?

That was the name Taipei settled on with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1981.

Chinese Taipei team
Chinese Taipei team’s walk in at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, via Facebook.

The compromise would allow Taiwan to compete without presenting itself as a sovereign nation.

Instead of Taiwan’s red and blue flag, Taiwanese athletes compete under the “Plum Blossom Banner”, a white flag that carries the Olympic rings.

A traditional flag-raising song — not Taiwan’s national anthem — is played when its athletes are on the podium.

Critics say the name is humiliating, noting that other disputed or unrecognised places, such as Palestine, get to use their name and flag.

What were the previous names? 

In 1952, both Taiwan and China were invited to the Olympics. Both governments claimed to represent China but in the end, Taiwan dropped out. 

Four years later, Taiwan joined the Olympics as “Formosa-China” — Formosa (beautiful) was the name Portuguese sailors gave the island in the sixteenth century.

Beijing boycotted those Games and quit the IOC two years later.

For the 1960 Games, Taiwan performed under the name Taiwan at the behest of the IOC. 

But Taiwan’s then-authoritarian government objected to that name — they wanted to be the Republic of China (ROC). 

Chinese Taipei emblem
The Chinese Taipei emblem. Photo: Pixabay remix.

Taiwan participated in two more Olympics under that name in the 1960s.

By the 1970s, more countries were starting to diplomatically recognise Beijing over Taiwan.

In 1972, Taiwan took part in the Olympics as the ROC for the last time.

Taiwan boycotted the 1976 Olympics after host country Canada demanded it compete as Taiwan instead of ROC.

It was then suspended in 1979 after the IOC recognised Beijing as the representative body for China. 

Two years later, it was allowed back after it agreed to compete as Chinese Taipei, the name it has used since.

There are now growing calls to use the name Taiwan at the Games once again.

Since the 1990s, Taiwan has morphed from a dictatorship into one of Asia’s most progressive democracies.

A distinct Taiwanese identity has emerged, especially among the younger generation. 

A referendum on whether “Chinese Taipei” should be changed was held in 2018, sparking warnings from both the IOC and Beijing.

The referendum was lost, partly because top athletes opposed the vote, fearful of being banned from major sporting events. 

President Tsai Ing-wen — who won a landslide re-election in 2020 — views Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation and has pushed to use the name Taiwan more.

What about these Games?

Relations between Taiwan and China are at their lowest point in years. 

In a glimpse of possible political tussles to come, a Chinese government spokesperson last week called Taiwan “Zhongguo Taipei” — or “China, Taipei” in Mandarin — instead of the usual “Zhonghua Taipei” (Chinese Taipei) in a press conference. 

The minuscule language change hints at Beijing’s sovereignty claims, and prompted a rebuke from Taiwan.

A Taiwan spokesman said Beijing was trying to “belittle” the island. 

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