Taiwan’s stellar Universiade needs qualification


Taiwan’s Yang Chun-han on his way to gold in the 100m final at the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei, with Slovakia’s Jan Volko, left, and South Africa’s Thando Roto, flanking him.
Photo: Wang Yi-sung, Taipei Times

Update: Massive apologies to the subs at Taipei Times. I sent the wrong draft. This one’s completely my fault! Chowing down on a stodgy piece of humble pie as I type this! Sorry, guys.

Not for the first time, Taipei Times used the first draft of a piece I sent them. It’s kind of a weird one this time, as the first draft featured a blog-type first person intro, which they’re nor usually keen on. I’d resubmitted later Friday night, tightening things up, correcting a couple of inaccuracies and adding the two paragraphs about Taiwan’s Olympic history toward the end. You can see the piece they ran here. Below is the new and improved version.

Yang Chun-han’s (楊俊瀚) gold medal in the 100m here at Universiade here in Taipei on Thursday was an impressive feat. He became the first Taiwanese track athlete to win a gold at the students games since Wang Hui-chen (王 惠珍) took the women’s 200m title in Sheffield in 1991. To get to the final, Yang set a new personal best, shaving 0.02 seconds off the time he clocked at the National Intercollegiate Athletic Games in May.

It’s been a good year for the sprinter from Hualien. His gold medals in Taipei come on the back of a brace at the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar, India last month – gold in his favored distance of 200m and bronze in the 100. He fell short in the 200m at Taipei Stadium yesterday, coming seventh with a time of 21.07 (his winning time of 20.66 in India would have secured gold), but overall, he has excelled.

Yet Yang’s success, and Taiwan’s outstanding showing at the games, needs some qualification.

Firstly, several of the athletes seriously underperformed in the 100 meters final. The most glaring example was Cameron Burrell – son of former Olympic Gold medalist Leroy Burrell – who is head coach of the U.S. athletics team here in Taipei.

The junior Burrell has yet to match the exploits of his father, who achieved a then-world record of 9.90 in 1991, but he still managed a time of 9.93 at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) outdoor track and field championships in June. Burrell took the bronze with a time of 10.27 yesterday. Pipping him for silver was South African Thando Roto, who achieved a PB of 9.95 in March. Jamaica’s Tyquendo Tracey, who came fourth yesterday, ran 10.12 in Kingston in June.

This should in no way detract from Yang’s performance itself, but just remind us that this was not a fast final, given the times some of the competitors have run over the last few months. Even Slovakia’s Jan Volko, who finished fifth, has gone considerably faster than Yang, clocking a PB and national record of 10.15 in the preliminary rounds of the World Athletics Championship in London earlier this month.

That leads us to the next important proviso: Very few of the world’s top athletes who are eligible for the Universiade have shown up. And quite a few are eligible. While veterans Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt took gold and bronze respectively at the 100 meters in London, many of the standout performers on the track and at the games in general were youngsters. Sandwiched between Bolt and Gatlin with a time of 9.94, was Christian Coleman. Having blitzed the field with a time of 9.82 at the NCAA event, the University of Tennessee student has the look of a future Olympic champion.

Finishing fifth in London, with a time of 10.05, was South African Akani Simbine who claimed gold at the 2015 Universiade in Gwangju, South Korea, setiing a games record of 9.97. Along with high-profile teammates Caster Semenya, a double Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters, and 400-meter world record holder Wayne van Niekerk, also a gold medalist in Rio in 2016, Simbine decided against taking part in the Universiade. Although the trio were berated by the South African university athletics authorities for refusing to confirm their participation in Taipei, it was pretty obvious from the offset that they had much bigger fish to fry.

Finally, as with previous Universiades, there are serious question marks over, if not the official eligibility of some of the competitors, whether their participation is in the spirit of the competition. Weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching (許淑淨) may well be a doctoral student at National Taiwan Sport University, but she is also a two-time Olympic gold medalist, having topped the podium in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. Does she really need to be competing here?

Then there are tennis players such as Chan Yung-jan (詹詠然) who, at 28, who has been on the Women’s Tennis Association tour for 13 years and is one of several professional tennis competing for medals here. These are battle-hardened pros who make a living from their sport. What is the purpose of having them play here if not to simply give Taiwan’s medal count a boost?

The practice of registering athletes as students for these events is well-documented, with Russia perhaps the most notorious culprits, but for a nation like Taiwan, surely this flies in the face of the kind of image it would like to project: namely that of the plucky underdog striving to do its best and punching above its weight?

Taiwan has not won an Olympic track medal since sprinter-turned-legislator Chi Cheng (紀政) took bronze in the 80-meter hurdles in Mexico in 1968. Without doubt, the pinnacle of the country’s athletic achievement had come eight years earlier when “The Ironman of Asia” C.K. Yang (楊傳廣) came within a whisker of snatching the gold from his great friend and UCLA teammate Rafer Johnson in the decathlon at the Olympics in Rome.

Since those heady heights, the overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s Olympic medals have come in weightlifting and taekwondo, with archery, table tennis and baseball also featuring. In total, Taiwan has won 24 medals, including five golds, in the 15 Summer Olympic Games in which it has participated.

The nation has every right to be proud of its achievements as these games. A first track gold in over 25 years, and a record medal haul show that maximum effort has been put into producing a stellar showing on home soil. However, until such results can be replicated at the elite level, against the world’s best, and on a level playing field, we should stay grounded as to what this really represents in the wider scheme of things.

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