kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2006, 12:00am

Who is Hong Kong's most decorated sporting personality? All hail Yu Chui-yee, the brilliant one-legged swordswoman whose flashing foil at the 2004 Paralympics won four gold medals. Four Olympic golds! But how many people recognise her name or recall her glory?

And who, apart from sports buffs, remembers our disabled athletes winning 11 gold medals at the Paralympic Games after the Athens Olympics? A total of 18 medals won by the 23-strong Hong Kong team was a remarkable effort.

Everyone knows San-san. Remember how we hugged Lee Lai-shan to our communal heart when she swept home to score gold in the 1996 Olympics? She was our golden girl on her magic windsurfer.

In the latest Olympics, in Greece, our only medal in the general games was a silver for table tennis. Well done, indeed. But when it comes to scoring big in global sports, it's our disabled sporting men and women who rake up results. They are our athletic giants.

How come? The astonishing string of successes in everything from wheelchair judo to table tennis, fencing to badminton, is due to a movement that began more than three decades ago. Behind the drive to encourage active sporting participation by the disabled is a small group of dedicated men and women. Quietly, with little publicity and no fanfare, they have helped the handicapped lift themselves out of their sick beds to the pinnacle of sporting success.

Recently, one of these pioneers was himself awarded a medal; Secretary of Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok was made a member of the Paralympic Order. It is the highest honour of the global movement to bolster sports among the disabled.

It is recognition well deserved. Only two other Asians have won the award; one is the venerable Sir Harry Fang, who pioneered sports among the handicapped many years ago when it was largely dismissed as a fad. Today, it is an important part of worldwide sport. For the first time, in 2008 the Paralympics will be run as an integral part of the Olympic Games. This is a major victory along the difficult road to gain recognition for sporting greats who cannot walk, are blind or mentally retarded, have missing limbs or in some other way compete keenly but with huge handicaps.

Like the athletes they encourage, Dr Fang and Dr Chow are champions. They have combined medicine and sports for the benefit of all. It's no stray coincidence that the two Hong Kong giants of the Paralympics movement are doctors. It's highly logical.

For many years, the disabled and people who suffer from conditions such as cerebral palsy were often hidden in their homes, sometimes locked in a room or chained to a bed. One way to liberate these prisoners of superstition was to help them lead normal lives. A key aspect of that freedom was the power to play sports.

How do you persuade a disabled person to enthusiastically participate in exhaustive therapy? You provide something enjoyable to do. Hence the Sports Association for the Physically Disabled, an organisation that has acted like a Pied Piper, leading the afflicted to both health and happiness.

Swordswoman Yu, a 22-year-old student when not slashing her blade, says: 'Sports show the disabled can succeed.'

So Wa-wai, a 23-year-old who won a gold and two silver medals at Athens, notes that without York Chow and Sir Harry 'there would be no Games for the disabled and no chance for us to prove our worth. Without this, we would be living as just handicapped people, overlooked and ignored.'

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has recognised the enormous contributions made by both men. The recent award of the Paralympic Order to York Chow recognises his quarter century of service; he helped form the IPC and guided disabled sports into the Olympics movement. This is no sideshow; starting with the Beijing Games disabled athletes from 140 nations will take part in the Games.

Last November, York Chow had to stand down from his active role in global disabled sports. Being our health supremo is a full-time task.

'But my passion for Paralympics will not fade,' he insists. 'When you look at athletes like So Wa-wai and Yu Chui-yee, you will understand why I need to stay with the Paralympic Movement forever.'

Harry Fang and York Chow are Hong Kong heroes. Like the men and women they encourage to take to the sports fields, they epitomise the very best of our society.

Hong Kong is proud of them and the disabled athletes that they steer towards the stars.