By Nick Butler at the Main Media Centre in Nanjing

Mixed team events, such as in showjumping, have showed these same themes of unity ©Getty ImagesThemes of using sport to overcome wider differences have been showcased once again by the first successful crossing of the Taiwan Straits by swimmers from China and Taiwan, following the example set by the mixed nationality teams competing here at the Summer Youth Olympic Games.

Ever since the Republic of China Government took refuge on the island in 1949 as the Chinese Civil War turned decisively in the favour of the Communist Party, relations between China and Taiwan have been fractious as both claimed to be the legitimate Government of China.

The Taiwan Straits, the 110-mile strip between the two that connects the East and South China Sea, has long been at the centre of this dispute, with naval confrontations in 1954 and 1958 threatening to spill into nuclear war, before further tension in more recent years. 

But since 2008 there has been an effort to normalise relations between the two, with the start of increasing economic relations. 

In February this year, Wang Yu-chi, Taiwanese Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, met with Zhang Zhijun, Chinese Minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office, here at the Purple Palace in Nanjing, in the first official, high-level Government-to-Government contact between the two sides since 1949.

Zhang Zhijun (left) and Wang Yu-Chi during a second meeting in Taiwan in June ©AFP/Getty ImagesZhang Zhijun (left) and Wang Yu-Chi during a second meeting in Taiwan in June
©AFP/Getty Images

A meeting has also taken place here during the Youth Olympics between Chinese Olympic Committee President Liu Peng and Taiwanese counterpart, Lin Hong-Dow.

The relay, the first ever attempt at the crossing, was a continuation of this relationship, with the chairman of the Taiwan-based Straits Exchange Foundation, Lin Join-Sane, believing it broke new ground in cross-Straits communications.

Each team contained seven participants from each country including Zhang Jian, who in 2001 became the first Chinese man to swim the English Channel.

Swimming in three-hour shifts without any breaks, each participant was equipped with shark repellent and a wetsuit to protect against jellyfish stings, with the crossing considered particularly hazardous due to the strong waves and currents.

After leaving Hsinchu city in Taiwan on Monday (August 18), they arrived on mainland China at Longfengtou Beach in Pingtan in Fujian Province yesterday afternoon, little over four days later. 

It has been hailed here as a further example of the use of sport to promote peace, following a number of messages in that regard in Nanjing, including mixed team competitions in shooting, badminton, table tennis, fencing and judo, as well as equestrian. 

Ukrainian rifle shooter Pavlo Korostylov was also awarded his gold medal by Russian IOC member Vitaly Smirnov, at a time of conflict between the two nations ©IOC/Ian JonesUkrainian rifle shooter Pavlo Korostylov was also awarded his gold medal by Russian IOC member Vitaly Smirnov, at a time of conflict between the two nations ©IOC/Ian Jones

Although Japanese Flagbearer Mia Aquino was booed when she appeared at the Opening Ceremony last Saturday (August 16) at a time of continual tension between China and Japan, subsequent finals between players from the two countries in the sports of table tennis and badminton have been conducted on thoroughly harmonious grounds.

In 1971, China was also the location for history's most famous example of sport being used to unite countries when a United State table tennis team was invited to China to begin a process, known as the "Ping Pong Diplomacy", in which stronger Sino-US relations were set in motion.

It barely needs to be said that there have been many occasions when sport has increased tensions - most notably the brief War in 1969 that began from violence during a FIFA World Cup qualifying football match between Honduras and El Salvador - but this is a further good sign of positive outcomes.

This is also something the International Olympic Committee is working hard to promote as part of its ongoing relationship with the United Nations, which aims to "promote peace through sport". 

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