Chinese-Taiwanese geopolitical tensions have found their way into the world of CrossFit.

“Bobo” Chen Aichan, a 31-year-old Chinese athlete based in Shanghai, won the 2020 CrossFit Open as the top female in China, which means she will represent her country at the 2020 CrossFit Games in August.

Chen, who beat Taiwan’s Ruei Hung Tsai-jui, last year’s winner, claims Hung was disrespectful towards her home country. In creating national champions as part of its rules and qualification overhaul in 2019, CrossFit made Hong Kong and Taiwan part of China when it comes to eligible country champions.

“I found the responsibility as a Chinese athlete,” said Chen through a written Cantonese translation. “Especially when I saw the Taiwan athlete refuse to hold the flag of China.”

Chen Aichan at a competition in China. Photo: Handout

The former weightlifter, who competed as part of the national team until 2017, said she originally turned down the opportunity to turn professional in 2019, but after seeing Hung not holding the Chinese flag at the Games opening ceremony, she changed her mind.

Hung, 26, trains in Kaohsiung at both CrossFit X Ray (where she is a full-time coach) and Lian CrossFit (her original gym). Chen, who is from a farming village outside Guangzhou, trains at Stud CrossFit in Shanghai, is a full-time coach and said she “gained professional help and instruction before securing the national championship”.

Hong Kong’s Ant Haynes and Hung Tsai-jui at the 2019 CrossFit Games. Photo: Duke Loren

“I wanted to be the champion,” said Chen about her goals after watching the 2019 CrossFit Games. Chen finished second in China in 2019 behind Hung. “I wanted to become a representative of China – the one holding the national flag.”

Beijing claims the self-ruled democracy as Chinese territory, and the Chinese Communist Party has in recent years ramped up a campaign to isolate Taiwan internationally, including forcing airlines to change the way they refer to Taiwan and censoring displays of the Taiwanese flag.

Hung said there is definitely a misunderstanding when it comes to Chen and what she thinks she saw during the Games.

“The Games organiser already assigned Ant (Haynes) to hold the flag with his name on the list, and they had never requested me to hold it so where did I get the chance to refuse the opportunity? I have no idea where she got the story from.”

Hung Tsai-jui training in Taiwan. Photo: Handout

Haynes, who has been China’s top male in the past two years, said only one person from each nation was selected to hold the flag, something that was designated before the Games started.

“Yes, Ruei didn’t really want to hold it, but she wasn’t supposed to anyways,” he said, noting all countries with more than one representative had to choose who would hold the official flag, a common sight at various international sporting events. “She is Taiwanese at the end of the day.”

Representatives from CrossFit Inc. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In an interview last year with South China Morning Post , Hung said if asked by anyone at the 2019 CrossFit Games which country she was representing, even though she was forced to wear clothing and attire from CrossFit which had the Chinese flag on it, that she “would proudly say [she] comes from Taiwan”.

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In a statement released after CrossFit announced it would do away with Regionals and implement country representatives as the main pathway to qualify for the Games outside the Open, it stated: “we are generally following national sovereignty, informed by US government policy” when it comes to drawing country lines.

However, the official US policy towards Taiwan has been deliberately ambiguous since it switched formal diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Taiwan was also recently warned by the International Olympic Committee that it could lose its right to compete if it changes its name from “Chinese Taipei” for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The CrossFit Open is an online, five-week competition in which competitors submit videos of workouts chosen by CrossFit. Two national champions are crowned from each country (one male and female) in each nation that has a CrossFit affiliated gym.

Chen Aichan and Ant Haynes in a promotional poster for the 2020 CrossFit Games. Photo: CrossFit

Chen secured the Open via a last-minute scoring adjustment, in which fellow Chinese athlete Sarah Adams was handed a “major penalty for lack of depth in the single-leg squat in 20.4”, according to CrossFit’s website. Adams, who finished first in 20.1, 20.2 and 20.3, was knocked down to 20th in 20.4, which cost her the nomination. Chen finished first in 20.4 and 20.5.

Chen was also docked a “minor penalty for lack of extension in the step-up in 20.4. Minor penalty for failure to reset the monitor multiple times in 20.5”. Hung finished second behind Chen overall, while Adams dropped to third.