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Snow-Free Subtropical Taiwan Fielding Team for Winter Games


Lee Wen-yi, a skier from Taiwan. (Courtesy: Lee Wen-yi)

In subtropical Taiwan, the closest pile of icy snow is a serving of bàobīng, a sweet fruity dessert.

Yet when the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games open Friday, four Taiwanese athletes will compete under a name — Chinese Taipei — that is rarely used and without displaying their red flag with a white sun on a blue rectangle in one corner.

Skiers Lee Wen-yi and Ho Ping-jui will compete in the women’s and men’s slalom, respectively. Lin Sin-rong will rocket downhill in the women’s single luge. And, like other speedskaters, Huang Yu-ting, 33, will participate certain of the Dutch team’s dominance.

“When I’m meeting people, I’ll tell them I’m from Taiwan, because if you tell people you’re from Chinese Taipei, nobody knows where you’re from, you can’t find it on Google,” Lee said of her homeland.

There are almost no real training facilities for winter sports on the self-governing island and the COVID-19 pandemic has kept Taiwan’s athletes from training abroad. They’ve kept in shape using alternative training methods as they prepare for the Olympics.

Luger Lin, 23, has powered along the nation’s mountain highways on in-line skates. She trains on one of Taiwan’s ice rinks to perfect the launch sequence needed to start the luge. With spiked gloves, she works the ice as recreational skaters glide by.

“On the ice rink, I will just practice starts by [paddling] the ice with my gloves over and over, it’s quite repetitive,” she told VOA Mandarin last week.

Alpine skier Ho, 24, has trained in snow-blessed Austria since his middle school days. For these Games, however, he’s been bicycling and hitting the gym to maintain the lung capacity and muscles his event demands.

“We almost escaped back to Taiwan during early 2020 before a lockdown in Europe, because at that time, people’s understanding was that the COVID-19 virus would severely damage your lungs,” Ho, who now lives in Taipei, told VOA Mandarin.

“For an athlete, an injury like that will end your career,” he said.

Lee, 19, faces a similar challenge. The product of a skiing family, Lee’s father, Lee Yong-de, was one of Taiwan’s few professional skiers who reigned in the 1980s. He now owns an indoor ski training center, where his daughter maintains her competitive form using two machines that simulate the alpine tracks of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia and the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Ho Ping-jui, a skier from Taiwan. (Courtesy: Ho Ping-jui)
Ho Ping-jui, a skier from Taiwan. (Courtesy: Ho Ping-jui)

“These machines helped me tremendously,” Lee said. “When I went to the U.S. for training in August 2021, it’s like I’ve never left the tracks after a year and a half living in Taiwan, where you see zero snow.”

Lee believes she’s benefitted from the machines. “I think the machines have low tolerance for error, so I actually have to perfect my movement to finish the simulated tracks on them.”

But she needed more to qualify for the Games, so Lee and her father crisscrossed Europe last autumn so she could compete in qualifying events in Lithuania, Bosnia and Cyprus until December.

“I did a total of 33 races in less than two months, one race per 1.4 days,” Lee told VOA Mandarin.

During their training trip, her father, who is also her coach, maintained close contact with the Chinese Taipei Ski Association, which is responsible for entering athletes for the Games.

“All the hard work didn’t go in vain, and now I have a spot in this year’s Olympic Games,” Lee added.

While Beijing operates sports-centered boarding schools that are partially state-funded to train China’s rising Olympians, Taiwanese athletes usually rely on family funding for training until they start to participate in international events. At that point, the Taiwan Sports Administration and commercial sponsorships begin to offset the cost of training.

But for athletes who are training for winter sports that do not bring in tourist dollars or other revenue to the subtropical island, money is as hard to find as snow.

Taiwan will not send any government officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics this year, and the Taiwan Sports Administration said Jan. 28 that its delegation would not take part in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics “due to tense epidemiological situation and other factors.”

Lin Sin-rong, a sled runner from Taiwan. (Courtesy: Lin Sin-rong)
Lin Sin-rong, a sled runner from Taiwan. (Courtesy: Lin Sin-rong)

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and a Taiwanese official told Reuters that self-governing Taiwan feared Beijing could use the events to assert its jurisdiction over the island by putting Taiwanese athletes beside those from Hong Kong, which is officially a special administrative region of China.

This year’s Winter Olympics is also clouded by a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott, as well as possible air pollution, according to the Taiwanese news outlet ANI.

The Taiwanese team members who spoke to VOA Mandarin said they would refrain from commenting on political topics.

“I asked my athletes to focus on the Games and stay out of politics,” said Lee Yong-de, who coaches his daughter Lee Wen-yi, because “separating the two makes everyone happy.”

Some material for this report came from The Associated Press.

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