Olympic-sized Flag Flap at the GFI – Gerry Foster
The phone rang at the Grand Forks International office in late May of 2001.The caller was from Los Angeles and he was inquiring about the upcoming baseball tournament. Specifically his question involved a team from China. “They want to come to your event this year”, he blurted out. I was a little stunned and frankly thought it was a hoax. I asked for more information which he subsequently faxed.
It took me a day to come to grips with this dramatic development. Once things were verified the negotiations and planning began with a sense of urgency. Sixteen teams were already confirmed, so what to do? Lewis-Clark State College was coming with two teams and graciously agreed to participate as one unit.
Meanwhile the tournament program would soon be going to print, time was of the essence. Of immediate concern was working with the Canadian embassy in Beijing to make sure this could happen. Arrangements needed to be fast tracked but the prospects of hosting the Tianjin City Lions, the number one team in China and the first city in that vast country to be interested in the sport, provided all the incentive needed to work through the numerous details.
Their desire was to come to North America and play a series of games against good competition. They would participate at the GFI and then play a number of college teams in California. Now this was quite remarkable. Their North American contact, Mr. Sung, an agent for American professional ballplayers who were interested in playing in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, was organizing the trip for Team China. He was aware of the GFI being an outstanding and highly competitive tournament which says volumes about the widespread, first-rate reputation of this premier Canadian event.
I will never forget the day Tianjin City Lions arrived in Grand Forks. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday, three days before the opening game. I met the team at their motel and took them to a local restaurant for dinner. We walked the several blocks and it was a sight to behold. They were impeccably dressed, all wearing eye-catching team jackets.
At breakfast Sunday morning a problem surfaced and it wasn’t bad coffee! The head of the delegation thrust a copy of the GFI official program in front of me. Immediately he pointed to the flags on the front cover, specifically the flags of China and Taiwan. This was most unacceptable to him. For 2 ½ hours we talked, relying on (and trusting) their interpreter. One of the bizarre questions asked of me was, “Are these programs in the Vancouver airport?” “How on earth would I know” I responded.
I was asked to prepare a written statement for the next day, requesting among other things, that the flags flying over the scoreboard at James Donaldson Park be removed, at least the flags of Taiwan and China.
I remember thinking at the time, ‘if only I had Henry Kissinger’s phone number, I’d call him!’ High-stakes international diplomatic negotiations were far beyond my capabilities.
That evening, at another motel, I welcomed the team from Taiwan, a country that had been coming to the GFI for several years. It was another sensitive meeting.
Monday dawned with the usual last minute preparations to take care of; added to the list was that written declaration to present to Team China, appropriately at high noon! Meeting them at a practice field at Dick Bartlett Park we exchanged our respective pacts. Apparently it did not meet with their approval. I issued an ultimatum! I said, “Take it or leave it. I expect you to be at the ballpark Tuesday to play Team Canada in the opening game.” I walked away, wondering if I had messed up.
Tuesday morning, and the 2001 tourney was just hours away. At 6:30 pm, I finished a scheduled TV interview and believe me; one eye was looking into the camera and the other watching for Team China’s bus. Fans were swarming into the stadium, an unusually large crowd for the opening night of this marvellous event. Team Canada had arrived. Would their opposition from across the Pacific appear? And suddenly there they were, but would they take the field? The head of the delegation presented me with gifts, smiled, shook my hand, and the players and coaches headed to their dugout.
The rest of the week Tianjin City was a model of decorum. We played the tournament with only the Canadian flag flying in centre field. So what really was the problem? Many are not aware that in the Olympic Games and other international sporting events a ‘replacement’ flag is used for Taiwan as well as a different anthem. China (and others), refers to Taiwan as Chinese Taipei.
At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, a similar controversy erupted over the Taiwanese flag which in one incident was removed from the Regent Street Shopping district in London. Likewise one of the confrontations in Grand Forks (eleven years earlier) involved the Team China officials requesting the downtown Home Hardware to get rid of the national flag of Taiwan which was flying outside their business along with the flags of the other participating countries.
Ironically three of the coaches on the Tianjin City team had been hired from Taiwan’s professional leagues!
Once it was confirmed that a team from China was coming I anticipated there might be a problem regarding flags and anthems. I questioned the ‘agent’ weeks before the tournament and he assured me this would be a non-issue. Obviously someone stood to lose a lot of money on this deal if it fell through. Use your imagination on this one!
And for the record Tianjin City defeated Team Canada in the opener, 3-2, scoring the winning run on an error. They returned to China after their North American trip and the following year would win the inaugural championship of the China Professional Baseball League.