Athletes Carry Family Dreams to Taipei's 2017 Summer Universiade Games

Image: 29th Summer Universiade of Taipei 2017
Flag bearers hold national flags during the opening ceremony of the 29th Summer Universiade Games at Taipei Municipal Stadium in Taipei.AFP / Getty Images

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By Chris Fuchs

TAIPEI, Taiwan — One attended the University of Pennsylvania, the other Harvard. Both have fenced for their Ivy League schools’ teams, even facing off against each other to break ties in decisive matches.

But this time, brothers Jason and Jerry Chang of California’s San Francisco Bay Area are part of a team representing the United States, competing in the Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade, which officially kicked off in Taiwan’s capital on Aug. 19.

“Definitely when I landed it felt really special because I’ve always come here just for the purposes of visiting family,” Jason Chang, 24, told NBC News during a sit-down interview at the athletes village. “For once I’m here as an athlete representing my country, the United States.”

“The fact that we’re all athletes, we’re all here to compete, we have our separate countries, we have our separate teams, but the goal is to break down these boundaries.”

The Changs, whose father grew up fencing in Taiwan, are among the thousands of athletes from around the world taking part in the 29th Summer Universiade, a competition organized by the International University Sports Federation (FISU) whose history dates backs decades.

The opening ceremony took place Saturday night in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, before what officials said was a sold-out crowd. But some athletes were blocked from entering and marching in the parade of nations, following what FISU in a statement called “a peaceful public order incident.”

Local Chinese-language media reported that groups, including one protesting pension reform in Taiwan, tussled with police on the streets outside the arena.

“Following a short wait and quick action from the Taipei authorities, the delayed athletes were able to join those already in the stadium,” the FISU statement reads. “The athletes marched in together to huge applause, and the ceremony continued as planned.”

Left to right: judoka Miranda Imamura and fencers Jason Chang and Jerry Chang of the USA Team at the athletes village for the Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

At a Taipei City Hall press conference Sunday afternoon, Mayor Ko Wen-je — speaking in Mandarin — criticized the protesters.

“This is a very important event to our nation,” he said through a translator. “And it’s quite impossible to imagine that such kind of intentional disruption did happen.”

A total of 119 countries were slated to compete in this year’s Universiade, which runs through Aug. 30, FISU officials said at a press conference Saturday. The event often attracts a variety of athletes, including Olympic aspirants and Olympians themselves.

Held every two years in different cities, the Universiade is a long-awaited moment for this democratically self-ruled island of 23 million off the coast of China.

29th Summer Universiade of Taipei 2017. Chinese Taipei, Taiwan, fans cheering before the volleyball match between the Taiwanese team faces France in a preliminary match in occasion of the Taipei Universiade held in Taipei for the very first time.Alberto Buzzola / LightRocket via Getty Images

For one thing, it’s the biggest sporting event ever hosted here, city officials say. For another, it gives Taiwan a spot on the international stage.

Taiwan has grown diplomatically isolated since losing its U.N. seat to China in 1971. The Nationalists and Communists split in 1949 amid the Chinese Civil War, with the Nationalists bringing its government, the Republic of China, to Taiwan. The Communists established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.

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China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that must someday be reunited.

Relations between the two have become increasingly strained following the 2016 election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, which has historically favored independence from China.

Those tensions bubbled up in the weeks and months leading up to the Universiade.

“Definitely when I landed it felt really special because I’ve always come here just for the purposes of visiting family. For once I’m here as an athlete representing my country, the United States.”

China did not send teams to the event, because of what it said was a scheduling conflict with its own games, though individual athletes have signed up to compete, according to Bloomberg.

Ko, Taipei’s mayor, rebuffed a Chinese official’s earlier request for Tsai not to attend the opening ceremony and to be called “leader” rather than “president,” the Taiwan-based China Post reported.

And recent mention of Taiwan’s geographic name in an earlier online English-language version of the Universiade media guide as “Chinese Taipei” — an appellation required when it competes in sporting events like the Olympics — stirred anger among many on the island.

According to FISU, a member of the Olympic Movement, Taiwan as a host is designated as Chinese Taipei and has its own special flag and anthem.

Geographic references in the manual with Chinese Taipei were ultimately switched back to Taiwan, according to a statement on the Taipei 2017 Universiade website. That version was uploaded online and available in print to reporters.

Even as the complicated mechanics of geopolitics and relations across the Taiwan Strait lurk in the background of this year’s games, athletes like the Changs and 21-year-old Miranda Imamura remain focused on the competitions and their mission to represent the U.S.

Part of the female judo team, Imamura began studying the Japanese martial art form when she was 4 years old, she said. For decades, it’s been a family affair since her grandfather, a judo competitor, arrived in California from Japan in the 1950s on a judo tour.

“And for some reason my grandpa just really liked Fresno,” Imamura told NBC News. “Then he met my grandma, and they just stayed there,” she added.

Her grandfather’s four sons all went into judo, with one uncle making it to the Olympics as an alternate, she said. A black belt at the age of 14, Imamura worked her way up through various state and national championships, and is participating this year in the Universiade for the first time.

“It’s so exciting,” Imamura said, recalling the moment she arrived in Taiwan. “The whole atmosphere just kind of changed. The whole city just revolved around the games.”

As Imamura gets ready to compete, the health of her grandfather weighs heavy on her mind — earlier this year, the 84-year-old was diagnosed with cancer.

She said goodbye to him before leaving, and he wished her good luck.

“And hopefully I’ll be able to show him a medal when I come back,” Imamura added.

Her grandfather, who taught judo and started a judo club in Fresno, also hopes Imamura makes it to the 2020 Olympics, scheduled to be held in Tokyo.

“It would take a lot of sacrifice, but it’s still in the cards,” she said.

While this is Imamura’s first Universide, Jerry and Jason Chang have both competed in it once before.

Jerry was 9 and Jason 10 when they got involved in fencing, the pair said. Even though they train together as a team, the Changs have wound up facing off against each other, such as in knock-out brackets, as a result of the rules of the sport.

“What the coaches usually tell you is no matter who you’re fencing, as soon as you put your mask on, it’s a competitor,” Jerry Chang, 22, explained.

“We can be best buddies and go have fun off the strip, but on the strip it’s straight business,” Jason Chang added, referring to fencing's match area. “We’re there to win with all competitors.”

Having fenced against each other in college — Jerry for Harvard, Jason for UPenn — the Changs could again find themselves eye to eye here in Taipei.

Competing and winning aside, Jerry Chang said the Universiade is an opportunity to form an international community that transcends geopolitics.

“The fact that we’re all athletes, we’re all here to compete, we have our separate countries, we have our separate teams, but the goal is to break down these boundaries,” he said.

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