The Political Football of Taiwan: Passed From IOC President Avery Brundage in 1960 to President-elect Trump in 2016

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The Republic of China Olympic Team competing at the 1960 Olympics “Under Protest”

On December 2, 2016, Donald Trump took a phone call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. She was simply offering her congratulations to the American president-elect. And yet, this simple phone call established the possibility of a radically different Sino-American diplomatic relationship.

Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “this is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship. There was a sort of delusion based on overly optimistic ideas about Trump. That should stop.”

In fact, it was 38 years ago today (December 15) when then President Jimmy Carter officially recognized The People’s Republic of China, and Beijing as the sole government of China. A year later, the US cut off ties with Taiwan.

But in the 1950s and the 1960s, neither the People’s Republic of China (PRC), nor The Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan were officially recognized by the United States. The International Olympic Committee, however, recognized both. The IOC invited the PRC and the ROC to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The ROC withdrew in protest of PRC’s Olympic debut. In subsequent Olympics, the ROC decided to participate, so it was the PRC’s turn to boycott the Games, which they did until 1980. In 1952, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Avery Brundage, was viewed by the PRC as a puppet of the United States.

Brundage was the president of the IOC in the 1950s and 1960s, and had to deal first hand with the China issue. As the head of the Olympic Movement, and thus symbolic proselytizer of the Olympic Charter, Brundage wanted to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world” by ensuring as many different nations participate in friendly sports competition. In his mind, he needed a logical way to bring both the PRC and the ROC to the Games.

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Avery Brundage

To that end, he got the IOC to vote and approve a decision that would force the ROC Olympic Committee to change their name from The Republic of China to either Taiwan or Formosa, which is another name for the island of Taiwan. According to David Maraniss and his seminal book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, Brundage’s argument was that the smaller ROC was in effect not able to represent the vast majority of China.

Brundage and the Marquess of Exeter, the strongest Western proponent of the name change within the IOC, said it was a practical decision arrived at free from ideological pressure and without political overtones. The political act came from those who insisted on calling it China when it was not China, they argued. “We cannot recognize a Chinese committee in Taiwan any more than we can recognize an Italian committee in Sicily or a Canadian committee in Newfoundland,” Brundage said.

As Brundage quickly found out, the United States government was not keen on the IOC interfering in international diplomacy, and viewed Brundage, to his surprise, as a communist sympathizer. As Maraniss wrote, “the U. S. government, which recognized Chiang’s Nationalist China but not Mao’s mainland government, viewed this as a major symbolic victory for the communist bloc, and thought Brundage had been naïve and manipulated by the Soviets, who had initiated the proposal.”

Brundage was a puzzled man. He believed himself to be a staunch anti-communist. And yet he found his name bandied about in the press as a communist sympathizer, with calls for his resignation from the IOC. But Brundage remained in role. The ROC competed as Formosa at the 1960 Olympics, and Taiwan at the 1964 Olympics.

In 1979, after the United States officially recognized the PRC, the IOC recognized the Chinese Olympic Committee from the PRC, and passed a resolution that the ROC team from Taiwan be designated Chinese Taipei at subsequent Olympics.

So you can understand why Taiwan hasn’t felt all that respected in the latter half of the 20th century. And this has continued despite the fact that Taiwan emerged as one of the great Asian economic stories in the past 30 years, and is currently the 22nd largest economy according to the IMF.

So the phone call that was accepted by President-elect Donald Trump was not just a simple courtesy call. For the tiny island nation of Taiwan, aka The Republic of China, it was a gesture of respect and recognition.

You can bet, thought, this political football game is far from over.