Cycling coach Shen Jinkang on his last lap as H.K. mentor

Shen Jinkang, the man behind Hong Kong's cycling successes, including Sarah Lee's Olympic bronze, is nearing retirement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 5:32am

Shen Jinkang's name may be unfamiliar to most Hongkongers, but to the city's cyclists he is a legend who bolstered a sport that was in its infancy in the city and nurtured a generation of outstanding athletes, including Olympic bronze medallist Sarah Lee Wai-sze.

"It's not right to give all the credit to me," Shen says with characteristic humility in response to media reports eulogising him for his contribution to the Hong Kong team in his role as head coach after Lee pedalled to Hong Kong's first cycling medal.

Her bronze in the keirin at the London Olympics was only the third medal of any stripe won by Hong Kong.

Accounting for Lee's success, the Shanghai-born coach modestly says: "The management system of the Hong Kong Sports Institute is highly professional, and the facilities dedicated for cycling at the science lab are the best in Asia. The government subsidies have also helped us a lot."

But his peers see it differently. Cycling Association president Herman Hu Shao-ming, says the coach has made a great contribution over his 18 years in charge, and his influence will be almost impossible to replace as he approaches retirement next year.

Shen's exceptional coaching skills and the impressive performance of his riders at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, where the city's cyclists won four gold, four silver and one bronze medal, earned him the city's Coach of the Year Award.

But while his coaching career is approaching a glorious end, the road has not always been smooth for the 59-year-old. As a top cyclist in the late 1970s, he participated in the 1978 edition of the Asian Games in Bangkok. But tragedy struck two years later when he lost a leg in a training accident.

So he switched to coaching, studying at the Shanghai Sport Institute then joining China's national cycling team as a coach and eventually working his way up to head coach.

After falling out with the mainland authorities, he took up the same job in Hong Kong. But what he found gave little indication of the glory to come.

"I only heard there was a young cyclist with potential called Wong Kam-po and a group of amateur riders who only trained after they finished work in the daytime," Shen recalls. "I was a bit upset about the situation but had to face up to reality."

Wong, then a teenager, had been suspended from the team before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics after clashing with teammates at a training camp in Europe. But Shen helped put his career back on track.

Now 39, Wong is hailed as "Asia's God of Cycling" by Hongkongers and has a shelf full of trophies, including three Asian Games road-race titles. Having represented the city at five Olympic Games, he is one of relatively few home-grown sportsmen to become a household name in the city.

As well as helping road cyclists achieve world class standards, Shen has been credited by his Sports Institute colleague Dr Raymond So Chi-hung with introducing new cycling disciplines to the city - including the track racing in which Lee excels.

"Before Shen joined the team, Hong Kong cyclists only took part in road races. But he brought in various training methods to help them compete in track races as well," says So, a sports scientist responsible for using scientific methods to monitor the physical condition of athletes. He works closely with Shen to boost performance.

Despite his success, working on elite sports in a city where sport is well down the list of priorities has been no easy task.

"The major problem is we don't have a squad big enough to maintain keen competition among riders before we pick the best of them," Shen says.

"And we are only strong in a few of the 10 track events under the International Cycling Union and can't compete against big nations such as Great Britain and Australia."

But those will be problems for a new coach to tackle. Shen indicated last week that he would step down from the post next year when he turns 60, the retirement age for coaches set down by the Sports Institute.

Speaking at a reception for Hong Kong's Olympians on Wednesday, Shen said: "I think I'll stay until March next year, and after that, I'll spend more time with my family, playing around with my grandchildren."

But Pang Chung, honorary secretary general of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee, says Shen's case shows the institute should rethink its policy.

"I don't think it is the right time to let Shen go, especially with the challenges ahead for Lee," he says.

"Lee still has a lot of potential for improvement and will be a serious gold medal contender in Rio de Janeiro [in 2016]. Shen still has a vital role to play in her development."

And Lee is also keen to see Shen stay on.

The 25-year-old, who was Hong Kong's proud flag bearer in the opening ceremony of the Games, says: "I like to be coached by him, and his training programmes are very systematic. All the team members trust him entirely."

So says devotion and passion have been the key ingredients in Shen's recipe for success.

"He is a very serious man, as he keeps a close eye on everything - from the health conditions of athletes to details of training programmes," he says. "He always sets a high bar for himself as well as people who work together with him. Without him, very likely the team would not have achieved so much."

And Shen's success has not gone unnoticed by his former employers on the mainland - he was appointed a guest coach to the China cycling team last year.


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