1964 Olympic Legacy: Taiwan's time to shine

The Olympic flame made its way through Taiwan ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Games. After a turbulent period in history, it was the island's chance to step onto the world stage. One torchbearer shares his memories of the event, and explains why he fears it may never return.

Han Ji-sui, now 80, still beams with pride over his experience as an Olympic torchbearer 57 years ago. "It was such a great honor. Even at my age, I still get excited talking about it."

Practice makes perfect

It had been 19 years since Japanese rule had come to an end in Taiwan. The Nationalist Party, which lost to the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, was in charge. The torch relay was seen as the perfect chance to put Taiwan on the world map.

Taiwan in the 1960s
Taipei in the 1960s. The Olympic flame came 19 years after the end of Japanese rule. The Nationalist Party was in charge.

Han was among 26 carriers and escort runners who took part. Most were chosen from universities. "The relay was going to be broadcast globally. We had to be as good as the other runners from around the world," he says.

They trained hard for a week, especially on posture and appearance. "If you held the torch in a shoddy way, you'd look bad. If you're tired, you'd look lazy. We had to keep our hand and arm at a certain angle, and hold on tight. I've watched torch relays from other Olympics, and I bet nobody practiced as hard as we did."

Taiwan's torchbearers
Most of the torchbearers from Taiwan were chosen from the island's universities. "I bet nobody practiced as hard as we did," Han says.

Starting with a bang

The flame arrived from Hong Kong on September 6, 1964. It was a day late due to a typhoon, which only added to the anticipation. Han remembers a sea of people lining the streets. The sound of firecrackers rung out everywhere.

"I've never seen such excitement. Everybody wanted to know what the flame looked like. I could barely move forward," he recalls. "I carefully maintained my posture while trying to look natural and cool."

Han says Taiwan had never hosted such a significant international event. "It raised the island's morale. It was so great, and it touched every part of society."

Taiwan's torch relay
Han says he saw a sea of people along the relay route. Taipei residents welcomed the Olympic flame with firecrackers.

Recognized by few

Since the 1970s, many governments have normalized diplomatic relations with China while severing ties with Taiwan. Today, it's only recognized as a country by 15 nations.

When Taiwan's athletes go to the Olympics these days, they compete under what some people regard as an ambiguous banner: "Chinese Taipei."

Taiwan's team at the 2012 London Olympics
Athletes from Taiwan today compete under the banner of "Chinese Taipei," not "Taiwan."

Han believes the current geopolitical situation means the Olympic flame may never pass through Taiwan again. It gives him all the more reason to cherish the memories of the 1964 relay.

Han still has his uniform. The flame journeyed across Asia, but Taiwan was the only destination to proudly bear its flag on the runners' shirts.

"We didn't work hard for ourselves. We did it for Taiwan," he says. "Running badly would have trampled on the reputation of our ancestors, families and friends."

Torch relay uniform
During the Olympic flame's journey across Asia in 1964, Taiwan was the only destination to include its flag on the runners' shirts.

A torchbearer for life

Han went on to become a teacher. He says carrying the torch has been a source of strength throughout his life. "I've had to be a role model for my students. I'm glad I was able to work hard and fulfil my duty as a torchbearer. It has always given me positive energy."

Han is relishing the chance to see the relay that leads up to the upcoming Tokyo Games. "I will compare it to how we did it 57 years ago. In the end, I'm sure they'll deserve my congratulations and praise. Runners always get better."