LONDON – The Olympics were rocked with their second diplomatic scandal in fewer than two days Thursday after the national flag of Taiwan was withdrawn from a Games display in central London.
Chinese officials angrily confronted the British Foreign Office and complained to Olympics organizers when members of their delegation spotted the flag in the busy historic shopping district of lower Regent Street in the heart of the city. It was hastily removed, and a flag of Taiwan's national Olympic federation was found to replace it.
"We all know our politics, so obviously the Chinese were not happy," said Annie Walker, director of the Regent Street Association in charge of the display. "I was asked if there was a possibility of changing the flag by the Foreign Office after discussions with [the organizing committee]. Obviously China and Taiwan were mentioned, and it was discussed. A mistake was made. The correct flag has been put up."
The political situation involving China, Taiwan and the Olympics is convoluted and tricky. China does not recognize Taiwan politically, seeing it as a rebel province. Taiwan has applied on many occasions to be recognized as its own entity by the United Nations but has always been rejected, primarily because of China’s political maneuvering.
For Olympic purposes, Taiwanese athletes compete under the team name Chinese Taipei and use the flag of their Games federation rather than the red and blue emblem of the official flag. That agreement was reached more than 30 years ago and was seen as a solution that would appease China while still allowing Taiwan to field a separate team.
The incident came as local Games organizing officials were still reeling from the extraordinary error made before Wednesday night’s women’s soccer match between North Korea and Colombia at Glasgow’s Hampden Park. Furious North Korean players left the field and refused to return for more than an hour after the South Korean flag was shown next to their names on the stadium scoreboard. The team eventually played the match and won 2-0 after receiving clearance from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, son of former dictator Kim Jong-il.
The mistake with the Taiwan flag was just as embarrassing for the London organizing committee and the British government, which has recently worked hard to establish strong diplomatic relations with China.
The flag's hasty removal was greeted with annoyance by Taiwanese authorities. Shen Lyushun, Taiwan’s most senior diplomatic official in Britain, launched an official complaint with the Foreign Office.
"In a democratic country – and in a larger sense – we believe this kind of issue should be regulated by the freedom of expression without undue intervention from a third party," Shen said. "We sincerely hope that our national flag will be returned to its original place soon."
After the humiliating mistakes, Games chiefs have ordered an immediate review of all digital images relating to statistics and information at Olympics venues before Saturday's official start of competition.
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