Politics and Controversy at the 2020 Olympics

I’m writing this in 2021, as C.Y. Chuang is two sets deep into a game of table-tennis against Omar Assar. The tiniest of balls ricochets back and forth at ridiculous speeds, changing direction with the flick of a wrist. Both men are locked into the game, focussed, intense, and, frankly, wet. It must be the heat, right? Table-tennis can’t be that exhausting…

The branding and logos across the arena all say ‘2020 Olympics’, a holdover from a year of delays. There’s barely a sound. No applause, no cheering, just the gentle thwack of paddle and ball. Coverage this time has been a little different. Everything’s been a little different, really. Amongst the dozens of stories about Tom Daley’s chase for the gold are troubling headlines. “Tokyo’s Olympics Have Become the Anger Games.” “People (in Tokyo) Just Want Their Lives Back.” “Public Anger in Japan.”  

Things were always going to be different, even before the effects of COVID came into play. In 2012, Tokyo announced its bid to host the 2020 Olympics. Rival cities Madrid and Istanbul saw public support rates for the event at 78% and 73% respectively, whilst Tokyo, the eventual winners of the bid, saw a much lower approval rating of 47%. Support was, at best, lukewarm.

And now the games have arrived. Stadiums and sports centres, constructed over several years and costing billions, now stand empty except for the athletes, their teams, and the occasional small crowds allowed inside. The BBC writes that, as of July 29th, 198 cases of COVID have been directly linked with the Olympics. Statistics from Reuters suggest that, since the games began, there has been a spike in cases throughout the whole of Japan (daily cases were at 1378 on June 29th, compared to 4689 on July 26th). In a country where less than 20% of the population are vaccinated, the expenses and manpower dedicated to the games must seem careless.

There are controversies beyond the pandemic, aswell. As I was watching that sweaty game of table-tennis, I noticed that C.Y. Chuang wasn’t competing under the Taiwanese flag of his home nation, instead bearing a pink blossom encircling the Olympic rings. Since 1981, Taiwan has competed as ‘Chinese Taipei’, a name agreed upon after decades of back and forth between the IOC, China, and Taiwan. This is indicative of Taiwan’s place in the modern world. It is an island with a distinct government, identity, and culture; one of the world’s largest exporters of computer chips; responsible for perhaps the most decisive and effective reaction to the early stages of the pandemic, setting an example that the rest of the world struggled to follow. And, unfortunately, it is an island which almost every political body pretends does not exist.

Of course, that’s a simplified way of putting it. The government of mainland China, under it’s One-China policy, often refuses to make political dealings with any nation that might recognise Taiwan’s independence. And whilst many people in Taiwan do consider themselves a separate and distinct country, fears over a military invasion mean that this issue must be handled extremely carefully by their government.

These political and historical tensions have suprising repercussions. It’s not just the Olympics, for example, where Taiwan is unable to function as its own separate body. Frustrations were expressed last year as the World Health Organisation allegedly wouldn’t provide Taiwanese officials with up-to-date information about the pandemic. An interview between a Hong Kong journalist and a WHO representative went viral when the journalist asked about Taiwan’s requests for WHO membership.

The representative made a pantomime of being unable to hear the question. The journalist indicated that she would repeat the question, to which the representative said: “no, that’s okay, let’s move on to another one then…”

Still, this hasn’t dampened many Taiwanese folks’ excitement over the Olympic games. When Y.Lee and C.L. Wang of the men’s badminton team won gold a few days ago, a friend from Taiwan excitedly messaged me: “We got the gold! We beat the Chinese team!”

The Refugee Olympic Team

Members of another team have caught my attention this year. Cyrille Tchatchet II, a mental health nurse who had been practising through the pandemic, is weightlifting. Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, after escaping violent conflict in South Sudan when she was eight years old, is running track. Yusra Mardini, an Olympic swimmer, arrived in Greece after keeping a floundering boat afloat on the ocean for over three hours. These individuals and many more are members of the Refugee Olympic Team, representing displaced people across our planet. This team is supported by the IOC, who after the refugee teams first games in 2016, have committed to launching sports programs for displaced young people in several countries and nations.  

Perhaps a positive step, then, amongst the concern and complications of this year’s games.

I’m sure it was always like this, truthfully. The struggles and complexities of the wider world must have played a role in every Olympics – after all, the 1936 games were held in Nazi Berlin. It’s essentially an attempt at bringing a divided world together for what amounts to a few playground games. Will it all be worth it, in the end? Who knows. But I can’t pretend I wasn’t on the hook, listening for each and every thwack, hoping against hope that C.Y Chuang might make the shot, and win the day.  

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