Lai Wai-ling, Hong Kong's table tennis gold medallist at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics and world number one, will spend the summer at home in Sha Tin after the SAR's mentally handicapped squad was forced to pull out of the FESPIC Games in Osaka, Japan.
It is no fault of hers or Hong Kong's. Athletes with intellectual disabilities are currently under a worldwide ban that was yesterday widened to include the 2002 Paralympics Winter Games in Salt Lake City. This came about after the Sydney Games fiasco where it was found that two-thirds of mentally handicapped athletes did not have proper certification.
'All international events for mentally handicapped athletes are currently suspended. It is a pity, for Lai is the reigning world champion, Paralympic gold medallist and world number one. She is disappointed that she won't be able to take part,' said Silas Chiang Tak-cheung who led the Hong Kong squad to the 2000 Paralympics.
Chiang said apart from the Far East and South Pacific Championships in August, Lai was also facing the prospect of missing out on next September's World Championships in Taipei.
'I'm hopeful that a classification system will be in place by 2002 otherwise she will miss out on this competition too,' said Chiang. Hong Kong are not taking part in the 2002 Winter Games.
Hong Kong fielded mentally handicapped athletes for the first time at the Sydney Paralympics. The SAR took part in six sports but the mentally handicapped athletes only took part in athletics, swimming and table tennis. Lai, 14, won gold in her category. Hong Kong won a further seven gold medals through the efforts of their physically handicapped athletes.
But the Games was rocked when it was later found that most participating countries had exaggerated the extent of the disability of their mentally handicapped athletes. Ten of the 12 members of the Spanish basketball team were not genuinely disabled and team members had to return their gold medals.
According to Chiang, Hong Kong was one of the few teams who had strictly classified their athletes. 'Even the hosts Australia had not classified some of their athletes. We were 100 per cent classified. At the moment the system has a lot of loopholes but I'm hopeful that a system will be in place before the next Paralympics in 2004,' said Chiang.
An International Paralympic Committee investigation concluded that two-thirds of the Paralympians with intellectual disabilities did not have proper certification.