Race is on for HK's aspiring Olympians

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2008, 12:00am

Twenty-two and rising - that's the number of Hong Kong athletes who have already qualified for the Games.

Hong Kong sent a 32-member squad to Athens four years ago, and with the qualification deadline closing in, other athletes from table tennis, athletics, shooting, cycling and equestrianism are frantically trying to make the grade.

'We are expecting a final squad size that is similar to the Athens Games four years ago,' said Pang Chung, honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee. 'The qualification standards are getting tougher and tougher, and for many sportsmen and women, it's already an achievement to have qualified.

'Many countries are investing more in sports in order to get Olympic glory and it is difficult for us to catch up with them. After all, sport in Hong Kong needs to compete with other social causes for resources and it is never the government's top agenda.'

Pang is also worried Hong Kong may not be able to match the highs of Athens four years ago.

Paddlers Li Ching and Ko Lai-chak won a silver medal for Hong Kong in the men's doubles in Athens, while windsurfer Lee Lai-shan came close in the women's mistral, finishing fourth.

'We are relying too much on the old guard, and they are four years older compared to Athens. And their skills and tactics are well known to their opponents,' Pang said.

Shuttler Wang Chen, a medal hopeful in Beijing, said she was starting to feel the Olympic butterflies.

'In Beijing, it will be my last opportunity to win an Olympic medal,' said Wang, who will turn 32 in June. 'All my hard work and effort are gearing towards it. I will use the period between now and August to fine tune my form so I can reach my best this summer.'

The mainlander, who moved to Hong Kong in 1999, has regained the form that made her one of the most formidable players in the world. Wang won a gold medal in the singles at the 2006 Doha Asia after defeating China number one Xie Xingfang in the semi-finals and compatriot Yip Pui-yin in the final.

She reached the final of the world championships in Kuala Lumpur last year before losing to Zhu Lin of China.

At the Athens Games, she reached the quarter-finals before losing to the eventual champion Zhang Ning of China.

But if Wang can maintain her world ranking - she is now fifth and behind four mainlanders - she will not meet any player from China until the semi-final stage in Beijing, if the form book holds.

That seeding will increase her chances of winning a medal in Beijing.

Another leading Hong Kong athlete, Wong Kam-po, however, said time was running short for him as the 100-day countdown arrives.

'There is not much time left,' said Wong, who has clinched two Olympic berths, but is likely to compete only in the points race on the track, leaving the road race to another teammate. 'This is going to be a pivotal time as I need to complete two or three training cycles so I can peak in Beijing.'

Like Wang, the 35-year-old Wong is possibly taking part in his last Olympics after representing Hong Kong at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.

'I was a bit young when I first took part in the Games. But after years of competing at the highest level, I am much more mature. With that experience and support of the Chinese crowd, I really hope to do well in Beijing,' he said.

Ko and Li remain calm despite the Olympics being just 100 days away.

With the table tennis doubles event having been dropped for Beijing, Li and Ko will pin their hopes on the new team event, comprising three paddlers for each team which also include Cheung Yuk.

'We have won an Olympic medal before and there is no pressure for us,' said Li. 'Our aim is to play our best in Beijing, and if it happens we can achieve another medal, regardless of its colour, we will be very happy.'

Ko said: 'A team medal reflects a team effort and everyone will be happy. It will be great if we can win the event on its debut.'

Swimmer Sherry Tsai Hiu-wai, 24, is also expecting her best when she attends her third Olympics.

'I can waste no time with only 100 days left,' said Tsai. 'The Olympics is always the most important event, especially Beijing where it will be held in the famous water cube.'

Tsai has just returned from the world short course championships in Manchester and found a lot of swimmers had made rapid improvements.

'My target is to become the first Hong Kong swimmer to reach the top 16 in the Olympics and it is not going to be easy when all competitors are improving their standards,' said Tsai, who aims to finish the 100-metre butterfly under one minute.

For rowers Law Hiu-fung, Lee Ka-man, Chow Kwong-wing and So Sau-wah, they all are excited to have won their tickets just before the 100-day countdown.

'I did not realise there are only 100 days left as my mind has always been occupied by the qualification regatta in Shanghai, and we are happy that we have all made it,' said Lee.