Fighting for an Olympic dream
Hong Kong judoka Cheung Chi-yip remembers last November 30 as if it was yesterday. That day his group of firefighters was called out at the break of dawn to answer an emergency in Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok.
A fire which started at hawker stalls had spread to a residential building. Firemen took nearly eight hours to put out the blaze that claimed nine lives. Many of the victims lived in tiny flats which had been sub-divided into 'cage' homes.
'My job is to go in and search for people,' says Cheung haltingly.
Many residents had fled to the roof. Some were not lucky.
He had been chatty as he spoke about realising his dream of taking part in the Olympics. But when the topic moved to his day job (night too, if you consider he is on call for 24 hours at a stretch), he goes quiet. It is difficult to talk about.
Lives depend on the 25-year-old, one of 5,000 firemen in the city.
'I have been a fireman for five years now,' says Cheung, who is stationed in Tai Wai. 'When we first joined, we all had to undergo a six-month course in firefighting before being accepted, but of course you learn something new every day.'
He lives in Sheung Shui and sometimes trains at the South China Athletic Association in Causeway Bay. On the day we meet, he has just finished a 24-hour shift and has rushed to Causeway Bay. 'I work 24 hours, then get two days off at a stretch. On those two days, I train.'
He is very polite. Judo, of Japanese origin, instils courtesy in the athlete, who has to bow when entering and leaving the mat and also at the start and end of the contest.
A Hong Kong athlete will go through these rituals at the Olympic Games for the first time since Atlanta in 1996, when Wu Ching-hui took part in the women's under-61kg.
By qualifying for London, Cheung has already won half the battle. He is surprised he made it. Not so the Judo Association of Hong Kong, which six years ago hired a Japanese coach after an 18-year-old Cheung finished seventh at the Doha Asian Games. The association now proudly boasts it has been vindicated in spending its own money - judo is not one of the so-called elite sports, which are well funded by the government through the Sports Institute (SI). 'We knew he was a talent and that he had enormous potential,' says Wong Po-kee, association chairman.
Hong Kong will be represented in 10 or 11 sports, mostly 'elite', at the London Olympics, but with the emergence of Cheung, judo has become one of the 'up-and-coming' sports and receives a subsidy from the SI and funds from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
'We would dearly love to be an elite sport,' says Wong. 'We were once in this category, a very long time ago when the Sports Institute was known as the Jubilee Sports Centre. But all that is in the past.
'In recent times, we have spent our own money, although the government has started to help us.'
Like any other sport, judo has to show results to become 'elite' and receive annual funding running into the millions of HK dollars, professional coaches, monthly grants for its athletes, the use of all the facilities from sports science to medicine and psychology, and live-in quarters for scholarship athletes. 'We need to get two top-grade results at the senior level as well as the junior level to become an elite sport,' association chairman Wong says.
'This is almost impossible when you consider that being in East Asia, we are always against the very best judokas in the world, from China, Japan and South Korea.'
At the last Games, in Beijing, 10 of the 14 gold medals in judo were won by the Asian heavyweight countries. Germany, Italy, Romania and Georgia were the outsiders breaking the stranglehold.
A judo contest is a five-minute cyclone of combat. The battlefield is a mat, or tatami, of 14 metres by 14m with a 10x10m contest area marked inside it. The athletes gain points for throws and holds. The best score is ippon, which can be achieved for a throw, a hold, a strangle or an armlock, and results in immediate victory. Other scores are waza-ari and yuko. These depend on the type of throw or how long a judoka can immobilise his or her opponent.
Last year, at the World Judo Championships in Paris, Cheung did just enough to win two matches to finish in the top 32 from a 90-strong field. That performance won him a berth at the Olympics in the under-73kg category.
'I couldn't believe it when I realised I had qualified for the London Olympics,' Cheung said. 'I started judo when I was 11, just because it was free to enter the judo club where I lived. I used to dream what it would be like to go to the Olympics.'
There are about 100 judo clubs in Hong Kong with maybe 2,000 men and women involved in the sport, according to Wong. This number could spiral. 'What Chi [Cheung] has done is amazing,' Wong says. 'He is a model for our small community.'
Judo became an Olympic sport in 1964 in Tokyo. The women's competition was added to the programme at the Barcelona Games in 1992. In London, there will be seven weight categories for both men and women, with 14 golds up for grabs.
Cheung laughs when we mention medals. 'I will be very lucky to get that far,' he says. 'I'm ranked around 27 in the 32-strong field in my weight category, which means my first match will be against an opponent who is quite highly ranked.'
His moment will come on July 30. Lose in the first round and he is out, as the rep?chages - in which the runners-up in the eliminating heats compete - only kick in from the quarter-finals.
But Cheung, now recognised as an Elite C category athlete at the SI, has already struck a blow for the sport in Hong Kong. On the day of this interview, he opened a letter from the Fo Tan academy saying he would receive a monthly training grant of about HK$10,000 for the next year.
And he has the title of Hong Kong Olympian judoka.
Cheung bows at the end of the interview. We bow too, feeling like a judoka for a moment.