Leave politics out of sports and make China’s Olympic stars feel at home during Hong Kong visit

Making such occasions political is unnecessary after athletes put in blood, sweat and tears to make nation proud, and they deserve good time in city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 6:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 8:46pm

There used to be plenty of fanfare when China’s Olympic gold medallists visited the city. While boosting patriotic pride here might have been the agenda of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, the visits also provided local fans with the unique opportunity to enjoy closer encounters with their sporting idols.

Hong Kong has also been the perfect place for the champions to relax with quality shopping and fine dining after years of hard training capped by intense competition on the international stage every four years.

The visits have also paved the way for high-profile cross-border romance. Two of China’s diving queens, Fu Mingxia and Guo Jingjing, met their Mr Rights here, eventually getting married and settling down in Hong Kong. No wonder then that some have joked that, in a sense, such visits indeed strengthen ties between Hong Kong and the mainland.

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Understandably, logistics for the athletes’ visits could be quite a headache for the government departments concerned. If that was a happy problem in the past, this year it could be more than just a migraine as some localist groups are already gearing up for protests. The authorities are reportedly preparing for the worst so as not to embarrass China’s Olympic stars.

From warm welcomes in the past to open hostility nowadays, although only from a few fringe groups, it is another obvious sign of growing tensions betweenthe city and the mainland. So it boils down to a simple question: why has Hong Kong invited them to swing by from the outset?

That can be traced back 12 years to 2004, when, after winning 32 gold medals at the Athens Olympics, a team of 68 Chinese athletes were invited to town and given a hero’s welcome.

Hong Kong in 2004 was slowly recovering from the deadly Sars epidemic a year before, and it was the perfect timing for a morale boost. The athletes not only cheered up the city, as Hongkongers at the time took genuine pride in the national squad’s extraordinary performance, but they also brought back with them the Olympic spirit of never giving up – much needed in a climate of crisis. And at the end of the day, it was an undeniably exciting occasion as it provided a rare opportunity for locals to marvel first-hand at demonstrations of the athletes’ unique skills.

Then came the 2008 Beijing Games, which took Hong Kong’s Olympic fever to a historic new high, as the city, with its world-class facilities, was designated as the venue for the equestrian events. It was only natural for the Chinese gold medallists to come to the city again after the Games.

But sometimes, too much water can drown the miller. When visits become the norm, there can be excitement fatigue, but at least that is not political.

It becomes unfortunate only when people link sports to politics unnecessarily. Localists who perceive the national team as irrelevant and advocate hate-China sentiment either forget or choose to forget the fact that it is not at all unusual to find athletes and coaches from the mainland representing Hong Kong and making us proud on the international stage. One good example is the national squad’s former coach, Shen Jinkang, who is now Hong Kong’s head cycling coach. He has trained two of our world champions, Wong Kam-po and Sarah Lee Wai-sze.

At the same time, the Fu Yuanhui phenomenon shows the beauty of sports and its potential to win hearts and minds. The young swimmer, who did not realise she had won a bronze medal in Brazil immediately after her race, charmed and conquered the whole nation with her rich, emoji-like facial expressions and hilarious quotes, rather than patriotic slogans. Fu said she was just “being myself”.

Athletes are humans, and sport is sport. After all the blood, sweat and tears they put in, our champions deserve a good time in Hong Kong. Let it be so, and let’s make them feel at home.