At the medal ceremony for the badminton men’s doubles Saturday, the winning players watched a flag being raised, but it was not their own. They sang as a song reverberated in the mostly empty venue, but it was not their anthem.
For decades, politics has been getting in the way of Olympic glory for Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that China claims as its territory. Rather than using its formal name, the Republic of China, or even Taiwan, the island competes in international sporting events as Chinese Taipei, under a resolution passed by the International Olympic Committee. The terms prohibit the use of any symbols suggesting that Taiwan is a sovereign nation.
On Saturday, Taiwanese badminton duo Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin prevailed over Liu Yuchen and Li Junhui of China, winning Taiwan’s first gold medal in the sport. In accordance with regulations, their victory was marked by the raising of the flag it uses at the Olympics, a white banner featuring a plum blossom motif and Olympic rings, and the playing of a song known as its flag anthem, commonly used at international sporting events it attends.
Tensions between the two sides had been raised even before the final, with both Lee and Wang emphasizing their Taiwanese identity on social media. In a Facebook post afterward, Lee said his gold medal was “dedicated to my country, Taiwan.”
Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, also congratulated the players for “winning our country’s first gold medal in badminton.”
Badminton is one of the Olympic sports traditionally dominated by China, where the state-run sports system is designed to maximize the number of gold medals in part by focusing on less-prominent sports.
Taiwan’s badminton victory has drawn some anger on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, as well as comments from users congratulating China on a victory that, like Taiwan itself, they see as belonging to Beijing. Others accused the badminton players of advocating Taiwanese independence and criticized them as ungrateful.
“You can participate in The Games because there’s ‘Chinese Taipei’ on your shirts,” wrote one Weibo user who said the Taiwanese players’ allusions to national sovereignty left him speechless.
Similar nationalist attacks have focused on athletes from Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that fields its own Olympic team.
Social media users in Taiwan have responded with memes depicting a badminton court as the island’s new national flag.
The results were reversed in the women’s singles final Sunday night when Chen Yufei of China defeated the top-ranked Tai Tzu-ying of Taiwan. Before the match, many Weibo users in China had already accused Tai of being pro-independence, citing past remarks lamenting her inability to hold Taiwan’s flag at international competitions.
“We can lose to anyone but Taiwanese and Hong Kongese independentists,” one user wrote.
Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.