Taiwan's Chou eyes Olympic badminton gold, even without a coach

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It's an unorthodox approach, but Taiwan's Chou Tien-chen is hoping his decision to go without a coach will help him win badminton gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

The world number four has flourished since parting ways with a full-time coach in 2019, with his physiotherapist Victoria Kao filling the role of mentor, cheerleader and critic.

With Kao in his corner, Chou won his first Super 1000 title at the 2019 Indonesia Open, and lifted the Taipei Open trophy for a record third time.

Now Chou, who reached the last eight at Rio 2016, has set his sights on winning Taiwan's first Olympic badminton medal.

"Taiwan's strength has increased a lot, and there is a very good chance of winning," Chou, 31, told AFP in an interview.

"I've grown and improved a lot since 2016," he added. "I feel I have the chance to win a medal, even the gold medal."

Chou will be heading to Tokyo alongside women's world number one Tai Tzu-ying and doubles duo Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin, who are ranked three globally.

Despite a strong badminton pedigree, Taiwan is yet to bring home an Olympic medal. But the team will arrive in Tokyo at something of an advantage.

- 'Psychological advantage' -

While so many other governments failed to adequately prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, Taiwan stopped its initial outbreak and kept infections out for a year, allowing its athletes to live largely as normal.

"I feel God has given Taiwanese athletes a psychological advantage here," said Chou, a devout Christian.

"Athletes in some other countries have to stop training, or take coronavirus tests before they can attend any trainings."

After a year of calm, a surge in cases over the past month prompted the government to raise the pandemic alert level and tighten social distancing rules.

As a result, Olympic athletes have been secluded in the national training centre in the southern city of Kaohsiung since mid-May.

But Chou said living at the training centre has made him more focused.

"There's a feeling of fear and insecurity now because of the recent coronavirus outbreak and I want to give a healthy dose of optimism," he said.

Kao, Chou's physiotherapist, said the pandemic is a problem facing everyone at the Olympics.

"The pandemic is also a rival, it's part of the challenge for players," she told AFP. "Those who can adjust and perform better under this pressure have higher odds at winning."

Chou's world ranking rose to a career-high two after his winning streak in 2019. Even if he doesn't have a coach, he can still tap into the expertise of Taiwan's state coaching set-up.

"It's not like I am so great that I don't need a coach or I don't have anyone to teach me," he explained, adding that the current arrangement suits him well.

"Everybody has something I can learn from... this method works best for me," Chou said, adding: "God is my coach."

- Chinese Taipei -

As Taiwan occupies an unusual place in the Olympic pantheon, Chou and his teammates will not hear the Taiwanese anthem if they win gold in Tokyo.

Despite being a de facto sovereign nation of 23 million people with its own borders, currency and democratically elected government, Taiwan's flag and anthem are not used at the Games.

Instead, Taiwanese athletes compete for 'Chinese Taipei', under an Olympic emblem known as the "Plum Blossom Banner". Their podium anthem is a patriotic song used for flag-raising ceremonies.

The reasons are both historical and diplomatic, as Taiwan is not recognised as a country by most other nations.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to one day seize it, by force if need be. It tries to keep Taiwan isolated on the world stage and balks at Taiwan's official name, the Republic of China.

'Chinese Taipei' is therefore a face-saving fudge that allows Taiwan to compete in international sport using nomenclature that Beijing tolerates.

Chou said fellow Taiwanese should not "feel inferior" because they cannot hold their national flag at international events.

"In the sports arena we can only use our Olympic flag and we can't use the national flag," he said.

"As athletes, we can aspire to better demonstrate our sportsmanship and confidence in international competition to give our compatriots more hope."

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