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Don't mess with these Taiwanese women

Indoor tug of war? The key is good training. A little political trash talking doesn't hurt, either.

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