TAIPEI — Taiwan can't claim global dominance in many sports. But here's one: women's indoor tug of war.
It may sound like Asia's answer to Jamaican bobsledding. But don't laugh. The island's team takes the sport very seriously. And since 2005, they've been the best in the world at what they do.
They'll try to retain the gold at this summer's World Games in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, against a strong team from Japan and, possibly, a rising rival: the rope-tugging ladies from China.
China's team hasn't yet decided if it's coming. If they do, it could set the stage for a repeat of last year's showdown in the World Indoor Championship in Italy.
That encounter quickly turned political — and ugly, according to Taiwan's coach and athletes.
It all started with a display of Taiwan's national flag. That's a no-no at international sporting events (Taiwan's coach said it was an honest mistake by the host).
China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and strongly protests against the display of any flags or symbols suggesting Taiwan is a sovereign nation.
So Taiwan — or officially, the Republic of China — is forced to compete in the Olympics and other international events under the name "Chinese Taipei." It also uses a special flag featuring a plum blossom, Taiwan's national flower.
In Italy last year, the Chinese team protested loudly at the flag display, and then turned the flag around, according to Taiwan's team.
Then came the political trash-talking.
"They would say, 'you are a part of us,'" recalled Chen Li-hui, 26, a veteran of Taiwan's national team since 2000.
Big mistake. Taiwan's ladies didn't take kindly to such provocation.
"We could have beat them very quickly," said Chen. "But instead, we tortured them slowly before making them lose."
So how did Taiwan get so good in this obscure event? Tug of war's origins are murky. But in modern Asia, Japan has been the master of the sport.
A Taiwanese sports official began promoting the sport here a few years ago, and spent time in Japan learning the best techniques. The 36-year-old coach of Taiwan's indoor women's team, Chen Tzuen-long, also trained in Japan.
That paid off in 2005, when Taiwan's women grabbed the gold at the World Games in Germany (the games are held every four years, the year after the Olympics, and see competition in non-Olympic sports only).
"Before we were quite bad in competition, so we were really happy," said Chen, the team member. "It was unexpected."
At a high school gym earlier this month, Taiwan's ten-woman team (only eight compete at one time) had their game faces on. After chalking up and wiping their special, no-slip shoes dry, they trained with defense and endurance drills against a men's team.
The men sweated and grunted in rhythm, while the ladies coolly leaned back at a sharp angle, only gradually giving ground. Chen, the veteran team-member, took up the key anchor spot in back, the rope coiled around her.
Most competitions last only 60 to 90 seconds, said Coach Chen; the winner is the team that can pull the rope four meters to their side.
Coach Chen said their training against men gives them an edge against other teams. He said Japan's team was also older — with most of their women over 40, giving them an advantage in experience but less strength.
Taiwan's squad, by contrast, are mostly in their early 20s. They're all from a poor, rural county in southern Taiwan, and beat other squads across the island to become the national team. Coach Chen says half of them grew up in single-parent families.
"The most important goal for them is improving their family situation," he said. The payout for a gold medal is NT$600,000 [about U.S. $18,350] per person, the coach gets nothing.
But China's team is rising fast. As in many fields, it has proved to be a quick study.
Hayashi K, former head of Japan's tug of war association, said he took a team to China three or four years ago to share practice techniques and equipment. At that time, "China was very poor, they could not get any prizes."
But since then, he says, Chinese steel and cosmetics companies have formed their own tug-of-war teams, fostering national competition. And they've absorbed the lessons Hayashi taught them. It paid off, with China's #2 win last year. "I couldn't imagine China could become so strong," Hayashi said.
But Chen, the team-member, said Taiwan is still "99.9% confident" they can win this year.
"It's an honor to represent Taiwan, but we're afraid of losing, especially this time, since the Games are in Kaohsiung and a lot of people will come," said Chen. "So we feel some pressure."
The coach echoed her assessment. "We're not afraid of any team," he said. "The most important thing our athletes need to overcome is the pressure."
Showtime for the event is July 18 and 19 in Kaohsiung; Taiwan's ladies are ready to rumble.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Taiwan:
Beauty and the geeks
Tiananmen 20 years on: Reflections from Taiwan
From front lines to commerce