Tactical mastery and bitter memories inspire Wong to lay his ghosts to rest
For Wong Kam-po, the Olympics remain the last unconquered territory. Hong Kong's eminent cyclist for more than a decade, Wong has his sights on making his life-long dream come true when he competes in the points race.
At 35, he has notched up numerous international honours since winning the Asian junior road-race championship in 1991 as an 18-year-old. And if you're looking for portents, the site of that precocious breakthrough was none other than Beijing.
'This will be his last and best chance to win an Olympic medal,' said Hong Kong's cycling head coach, Shen Jinkang. 'In terms of his skills, experience and preparation, he's at a peak. But it is never going to be easy against a world-class field at such a high level of competition.
'Of the 24 riders qualified in the points race for Beijing, more than two thirds have a chance to win a medal as they all have proven records on the international stage. Wong is certainly one of them.'
Since that maiden victory in Beijing 17 years ago, Wong has gradually established himself as one of the most formidable riders from Asia. His list of major silverware includes a world championship scratch race (2007) and a World Cup leg (2008) in the scratch race, two Asian Games road-race gold medals (1998 and 2006), two National Games road-race gold medals (1997 and 2001) and a number of first-place finishes in stage races around the region.
But Wong's Olympic experience is something he prefers not to talk about.
Prior to the 1992 Barcelona Games, he and his Hong Kong teammates were sent home during their final preparations in Europe after a fight broke out among the riders.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, Wong could not finish the road race. And four years ago in Athens, he suffered a similar fate when he was eliminated without completing the course.
Wong also has bad memories of the points race in Athens as he finished 20th of 23 on the track.
He admitted he fell into a funk of frustration and self-recrimination for a year in the wake of that letdown because he had gone into the event believing he was well prepared. But in the space of that one-hour event on the Athens track he failed to bring the best out of himself and lost by a dismal margin.
Wong also won an Olympic road-race berth for Hong Kong for these Games, but he opted out of it knowing he could face the same result as Athens if he risked it.
Wu Kin-san took over his road-race slot, meaning Wong can focus on the track. He is more confident of winning this time after a series of good performances in the past couple of years.
'Whoever we send for the road race will have no chance of winning a medal in Beijing because there is a big gap between us and the world's highest level,' said Hong Kong team manager Wong Yiu-wah. 'It is better for Wong to save his best for the track.'
A sixth-place finish in last year's World Cup series in Beijing, which also acted as a test event for the Olympics, gave Wong a timely boost in racing on the track.
'Physically, we may lag behind the westerners in an endurance event like the points race, but we can make it up by adopting a more tactical plan,' said Wong, who completed altitude training in western China before moving back to the velodrome in Shenzhen for his final tune-up.
'A lot of things can happen during the 40km race and, if you take your opportunities, you may be able to pull off a big surprise.'
In the points race, riders must race 160 laps on the 250-metre track. Every 20 laps will include a sprint with points values from five to one being earned by the first five cyclists. A bigger bonus of 20 points will be added to a rider's score each time he laps the main bunch.
Shen said it would be easier for Wong to challenge for a medal by earning the lapping points.
'It will be too much to expect Wong to win many of the sprints when he is up against the stronger western riders,' Shen said. 'But by using good tactics he can win it by lapping them. That was exactly what he did when he finished sixth at the test event in Beijing when he earned the lapping points twice.
'Mentally, Wong is at an age where he is fully focused and with the support of the Chinese crowd [he will be the only Chinese in the race], he may spring a pleasant surprise.
'I have never said it will be easy but I'm sure he will put up his best showing in Beijing,' Shen said.
Coach Shen believes Wong Kam-po has reached perfect maturity at the age of: 35