It's do or die for HK triathletes to prevent funding axe
It is almost as if Daniel Lee Chi-wo has been caught in a time warp. Four years ago, he left for the Doha Asian Games with the onerous task of saving triathlon's status as an elite sport at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. He now finds himself in this same, unenviable position.
'I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders - the responsibility of trying to keep triathlon as an elite sport,' says Lee. 'It will be harder this time - I'm four years older and the competition will be tougher.'
Tougher because of the unexpected return of defending Asian Games gold medalist Dmitriy Gaag of Kazakhstan. Gaag was banned for two years for failing a drugs test, but he has served his sentence and despite not having raced recently, is back in the fray to defend his crown.
Local triathlon faces a Guangzhou Games ultimatum. If the two athletes - the other being Andrew Wright - fail to perform, the sport will lose the millions of dollars of support it gets annually from Hong Kong's elite academy.
Lee saved triathlon from the axe last time around when he won a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. Lee, 29 at the time, outsprinted Kazakhstan's Daniil Sapunov over the last 50 metres to finish second in the gruelling 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run event, which was making its Asian Games debut.
Hong Kong's top triathlete shrugs his shoulders at the prospect of having to play saviour once again. 'I will try to do my best,' says Lee, who will have to win a medal to ensure the sport's future at the Sha Tin institute.
If he fails, it will be up to number two Wright to deliver the goods. Wright will have it easier, needing finish only in the top eight to make certain triathlon stays for another four years at the institute.
A complicated points-scoring system which judges the future of the 13 elite sports at the institute means a top eight finish for Lee will not matter. He already accounts for three points - his bronze medal at the National Games last year - and can only make one contribution towards the overall tally of nine points required by a sport.
Winning a medal at the Asian Games is the only way Lee can contibute more than three points to triathlon's score, which is tantalisingly poised on 8.75 with only results from the Asian Games to come.
So why does triathlon leave it until the very end to secure its future? Head coach at the institute Ruth Hunt says it's because triathlon has fewer chances to score points than other sports.
'Unlike cycling or swimming for instance, we have only eight occasions over a four-year period when we can realistically score points,' Hunt said. 'While other sports have more than 30 or 40 chances to acquire points due to having more disciplines, we only have a handful like the Asian Games and the National Games.
'This is why we have to wait until the Asian Games comes around every four years to ensure our elite status. It will be tough for Daniel but we hope he can do it again, and that Andrew can also grab a top eight finish.'
Wright, 27, is returning from an 18-month absence due to injury. He has raced only twice this year and it remains to be seen if his groin and Achilles tendon will stand the rigours of top-class competition.
'I have been struggling with injury for a long time. It is due to overuse. But hopefully I will be okay,' says Wright. 'I'm feeling good and the next few weeks before Guangzhou will be crucial in my build-up.'
Wright got a boost when he finished third in an International Triathlon Union (ITU) race in Taiwan last month. He had never had a podium finish, so understandably he was over the moon.
'I was pretty pleased with that result and I hope I can produce that same form next month,' said Wright, who finished seventh in Doha with a time of one hour, 53 minutes and 12.31 seconds.
All eyes will be on former world champion Gaag in Guangzhou. Asia's top triathlete pulled out on the eve of the Beijing Olympics and it was later revealed he had tested positive. That ban ended last month and the Kazakh is determined to make up for lost time.
'No one knows how fit he is. If he turns up, he will undoubtedly be the favourite to win gold. I can't imagine him being unfit,' Wright said. 'Even on a bad day, he is competitive.'
With Hong Kong triathlon failing to get a women's team into the Asian Games - Joyce Cheung Ting-yan and Leanne Szeto Shui-yan were turned down by the Hong Kong Olympic Committee on the grounds that they were not realistic medal contenders - the fate of the sport now lies in the hands of Lee and Wright.
'Winning a medal in Guangzhou will be tough, but in reality everyone on the start line is capable of winning a medal,' said Hunt.
If Lee has matured like good wine over the years, Hunt need not worry about the sport's future after April next year.