Torn between two countries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am

Jennifer Lee Ming-hua removes her black riding helmet and you see her reddish-blond ponytail looped through a white Beijing 2008 cap. In her car, as she's clearing space to pick up her daughter, Jacqueline, and son, Jonathan, from their school in Tai Po, a stuffed toy horse makes its way on to the floor.

Hong Kong's role in hosting the equestrian events for next year's Olympics is far from most people's minds, but for those within the equestrian community there is an acute awareness about the events, now just 10 months away.

For those hoping to compete next August, the notion of time carries even more weight. As the host, Hong Kong has been given a wild card for a team (four individuals) for showjumping, dressage and three-day eventing. While the official team isn't expected to be finalised until the summer, the show jumpers and dressage riders (there will not be an eventing team) with the possibility of representing Hong Kong are struggling.

Deadlines, be they real or self-imposed, loom. Each of the potential Hong Kong Olympians have their problems -obtaining a Hong Kong passport, finding the funds to buy an Olympic-quality horse, earning a minimum eligibility standard (MES) card.

Some are simultaneously working on all three. Lee, 42, was aware that all of the above would require a lot of effort, patience and time. She started early: initially inquiring a year and a half ago about her specific eligibility issues (she is an American citizen), obtaining a Grand Prix jumper in Mr Burns and planning to go to Australia for six months of training and attempts to earn her MES.

'My original plan was to get the horse, compete, qualify and ride as hard as I can,' Lee said. 'That's my job. I knew [the eligibility] would be an issue but I felt confident if I was riding well enough and if [Hong Kong] wanted me on the team, they would find a way to resolve my eligibility.'

If it could only be that simple. In August, two days before Lee was scheduled to fly with her horse, Strong Scotch (who is stabled at Beas River) to meet Mr Burns in Australia, equine influenza broke out and the country was shut down, competitions cancelled and Burns, as he's now known, was stranded.

He had been inoculated against the flu, but still came down with a mild strain. Lee stayed in Hong Kong with Strong Scotch, unable to train and prepare for her MES competitions. Her plans rapidly evaporated. Of course, Lee can still become eligible.

The Australian riders and their horses will, through a tight and compact schedule, have to do the same.

But there are two other components to the equation, both pressing and, to varying degrees, uncontrollable. First, the eligibility. Lee was born and raised in Virginia, but has lived in Hong Kong for the past 14 years. Her husband, Sam, is from Hong Kong and her two children were born in Hong Kong. In order to represent Hong Kong at the Olympics, she must hold a SAR passport, which she does not at the moment.

To obtain a SAR passport, Lee would have to first naturalise as a Chinese citizen and, in the process of doing so, give up her American citizenship. If a SAR passport cannot be obtained, an exception can be made by pleading a particular case to the International Olympic Committee.

It is not the favoured approach of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee (SF&OC). '[When] there are proven cases that the Hong Kong government will not issue a passport and you have sufficient evidence that they are good for Hong Kong, [but] cannot get a passport, then there is justification to go to the IOC to plea,' said SF&OC secretary-general Pang Chung.

Pang added he could not comment on Lee specifically, but said: 'She has to decide if she wants to be an athlete.'

Lee said she was 'looking into the implications' of giving up her American passport, but there was nothing decisive or definitive about the matter. 'They might eventually ask for an exemption,' Lee said. 'But the more time that goes by, the more my campaign is hurt. It's hard. I'm worried about losing access to my family in the US.'

Her family is in the United States, but her home is here. Then there is the horse. Should Burns be ready to compete in January, then Lee can go to Australia and start her work. Even so, she would still need a second horse.

In the early days of summer, Lee and six others - Jennifer Chang Ren-hui, Charlotte Morse, Kenneth Cheng Man-kit, Gaelle Tong, Samantha Lam and Nicole Pearson - went to Germany for evaluations to determine which of the four riders would share in the Jockey Club's HK$20 million fund to help Hong Kong's Olympic performance, namely to purchase Olympic-level horses. The funds were said to be announced near the end of September, but now early November is the rumoured date for an official announcement.

Horses that want to compete for Hong Kong in the Olympics will have to have a Hong Kong passport, too, by December 31. Time, once again, presses.

While Soenke Lauterbach, the secretary of the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation, acknowledged that just a few months remained before the year-end deadline, he also alluded to the fact that just because there was no official announcement, it did not mean that there was no activity behind the scenes.

An earlier South China Morning Post report said that Lee would be one of the four riders sharing in the fund. If Burns cannot go, there may be another horse, perhaps one currently in Germany, for Lee to ride. No parties would comment on if, and how much, one issue affects the other, but it is difficult to imagine how each could remain encapsulated in its own little box, separate from the others and without ramifications.

Can you receive Jockey Club funding without knowing whether you will naturalise as a Chinese or receive an exemption? Do you buy a horse, work at qualifying and figure out eligibility down the road? Do you reverse the order, working out the logistics first and then on the MES? They are all questions under an over-arching dilemma of determining and, in some respects, predicting which set of decisions and processes will best get Lee to the Olympics. But as those answers will unravel in the coming weeks, one - the why - has long been established.

'It's almost impossible to put into words because [the experience] is life-changing,' Lee said. 'The accomplishment, the pride - once you're an Olympian you're an Olympian for the rest of your life. My father went to the Olympic trials for sailing and I've always been proud that he was that good a sailor.'

The struggle is worth the chance to jump under the lights at Sha Tin. Time remains, but it presses.