Michael Pavitt

If you tuned in to the final two hours of the Taipei 2017 Opening Ceremony yesterday, you would probably have thought that everything was going more or less to plan. A little behind schedule, but these things happen.

It is credit to the organisers that this seemed the case, with the three different cultural performances certainly proving memorable. Beginning with the Vibrant Island section, which officially got the Ceremony underway, to the kaleidoscope of colours in the Hybrid Taipei performance, aimed at highlighting the culinary, spiritual, democratic and beautiful elements of the host city.

The third part of the performance, the Global Tribe, followed the classic Ceremony format of becoming a concert as the event drew towards its finale.

Pop star Wang Lee-hom, perhaps in a nod to premise of global thinking, was born in the American state of New York to parents from Taiwan. He was able to continue his relationship with major sporting events having been an Olympic Torchbearer for Beijing 2008 and London 2012, as well as performing at the Closing Ceremony of the former. Wang can also remark on following in the footsteps of American Michael Jackson as one of – I suspect – few singers to perform at the Taipei Stadium.

The highlight to most people will likely have been the lighting of the Summer Universiade Cauldron, with Taipei choosing a crowd pleasing way to complete the Ceremony.

There was rapturous applause for baseball star Chen Chin-Feng when he emerged to complete run of five Torchbearers in the stadium. The extent of the popularity of the country's first Major League Baseball player was noticeable, particularly when two-time Olympic weightlifting gold medallist Hsu Shu-Ching and women’s badminton world number one Tai Tzu-Ying had also featured.

Lighting the cauldron with a flaming baseball will probably have enhanced Chen’s popularity even further, despite the acting. While he had succeeded in appearing focused to swing and send the ball towards its destination, it was quite clear the object moved of its own accord up the zipline and into the Cauldron.

Baseball player Chen Chin-Feng capped off a memorable Opening Ceremony ©Taipei 2017
Baseball player Chen Chin-Feng capped off a memorable Opening Ceremony ©Taipei 2017

But I will not pour any further water on the fire. It was clearly a well thought out plan, which instantly provoked thoughts of the Barcelona 1992 Opening Ceremony, when Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo famously lit the Cauldron with an arrow.

Taipei 2017's plan was carried out with about a 90 per cent execution.

It was perhaps fitting for the Ceremony as a whole, as it would be impossible not to mention the protests outside the stadium which delayed the arrival of athletes in the Parade of Nations.

At first it was unclear what the situation was, with athletes from countries beginning with the letters A and B striding into the stadium, only to then witness the flags entering without delegations behind them. Certainly, it took a couple of minutes to realise the extent of the issue as reports filtered through about protesters blocking their entrance.

Local reports have suggested the disturbances could have been an extension of protests about the Government’s pension policy, with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen among those in attendance. If this is the case, they have certainly succeeded in drawing my attention to an issue I was previously unaware about.

Regardless, it was not a particularly good look as Taiwan officially got the task of hosting their biggest ever sporting event underway. A Parade of Nations initially taking place without athletes and lasting over one hour and a half from start to finish, pushing back the rest of the Ceremony. It was also disappointing that a number of athletes may have missed out on the moment of attention when serving as the Flagbearer for their nation, as they were rapidly hurried to their seats to try to get back on track.

The organisers will have had a sense of relief that both the athletes and spectators took the proceedings in good spirits and enthusiastic fashion when proceedings resumed, despite the brief lull.

Organisers will be relieved athletes were undeterred by the delay ©Taipei 2017
Organisers will be relieved athletes were undeterred by the delay ©Taipei 2017

International University Sports Federation (FISU) President Oleg Matytsin impressively drew a line under the disruption, when he opened his speech by stating: “I am sorry for the delay, but sometimes the best things are worth waiting for."

The simple line saw an acknowledgement of the situation, but a desire to move on.

Having witnessed Matytsin in action for the last couple of days, I must say I have been impressed with what I have seen so far. There are certain similarities with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.

Not least, their ability to deliver a joke. Reflected when Matytsin’s smooth line, with swiftly followed by Thomas Bach opening his video message by joking about his own experience of competing at the Universiade, quipping that it was "just a few short years ago".

It was also interesting to watch the degree of frustration Matytsin clearly had during the opening day of the FISU General Assembly. The Russian seemed to grow increasingly irritated by the interjections of the Serbian delegate at the Assembly, who continued to question the vision of the FISU throughout the proceedings. His voice became ever more stern as objections continued to be raised, before exasperatedly placing his head in his hands at once stage. One wondered, whether Matytsin had regretted allowing the Serbian official to vote, with their national body having initially only been an observer due to unpaid debts.

Bach, of course, has been known to bristle in a similar manner when greeted with an interrogative style of questioning.

I felt a difference though in their approach to handling their members, as when Matytsin’s patience seemed at its thinnest, he urged his members to be more proactive in contributing to the debate.

Using the Serbian delegate, who in fairness to him was the only other delegate contributing discussions, Matytsin stirred his members into action by commenting on the lack of interaction from them on FISU’s 10-year global strategy.

FISU President Oleg Matytsin share some similarities in their leadership style ©Taipei 2017
FISU President Oleg Matytsin share some similarities in their leadership style ©Taipei 2017

“We sent the strategy, we send the proposals and no-one comments,” he said. “There are two ways to this, you either agree with the FISU policy or you have a different vision. It is time to discuss, the General Assembly is time for two days of discussions. It is not two days for approval of reports.

“My personal position, and that of the Executive Committee, is that I do not like only reports because we come from countries around the world not to report. It is to discuss and debate policy. Reports should maybe be about 10 per cent of our activity, then according to the reports we should decide ‘mistake or the right decision’.”

Moments after his pep talk, members sprayed into action raising suggestions for additions to the documents and changes that they believed needed to be made. While some were small, others were larger offerings. What mattered was that the room had recovered its voice.

Having watched numerous large scale IOC gatherings, you sense Bach enjoys proceedings to be a controlled affair. Often the only interjections from the floor are to offer glowing assessments of his vision. One occasion this path altered was during the discussions over the 2024/2028 Olympic award last month, when the more vocal members provided some offerings. But, the decision was always a formality.

It is often frustrating watching these large gatherings in the Olympic Movement, such as IOC Sessions and the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly, when report after report is read and little discussion takes place.

Both the IOC and ANOC are led by powerful figures certainly, but you wonder as to whether their leadership could benefit from a more vigorous debate from their members to ensure they are following the right path, as they probably believe they are.