Hong Kong's government is making an eleventh-hour bid in Dublin to secure a place for its athletes in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland.
Cheung Doi-ching, chief representative in the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Brussels, has held a series of meetings with Irish health and government officials in Dublin since Friday to find 'mutually acceptable' ways for the athletes to take part in the Games, due to start on June 21.
They have been banned because Hong Kong remains on the World Health Organisation's list of Sars-infected areas. An Irish government-appointed committee has so far refused to lift the ban, despite intense lobbying and criticism, even from the president of the Special Olympics Committee.
Mr Cheung described his talks so far as 'constructive'. His latest lobbying effort began at 9pm yesterday, but by time of going to press, no progress had been made.
If there was no result last night, Mr Cheung was to have another chance today to make his case, a spokesman for Hong Kong's Home Affairs Bureau said.
Hong Kong officials and athletes have not yet given up hope.
'They have worked very hard and it will be unfair and a pity if they are not allowed to participate,' Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, president of the Hong Kong Olympics Committee, said last night.
Mr Fok said both the Hong Kong government and his committee had been working on every possible way to persuade the Irish government to lift the ban.
He got some unexpected help on Friday from Timothy Shriver, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics. In a statement on the committee's website, he described the ban as 'a sad day for the Special Olympics movement around the world, and I believe it is a sad day for the proud and beautiful country of Ireland.'
Mr Shriver said he found the ban 'shocking.'
'Moreover, this ban - incredibly to us - appears to be directed not at the general populations coming from Sars-affected areas, but only toward our Special Olympics delegations,' he said.
'What a tragic irony it would be if Special Olympics athletes - all people with mental disabilities - should suffer such an indignity as this, when it perennially has been, and is now, their common plight, to deal daily with attitudes and policies of exclusion and rejection or, perhaps at best, an environment of only grudging acceptance.
'And how odd that such rejection and exclusion would now come at the hands of the Irish health authorities, citizens of perhaps the most accepting people in the world.'
He said Sars is a serious and perplexing malady, and the committee 'joins all right-thinking people in advocating the most prudent measures to hinder its spread to new areas.' But, he said, 'it seems that our efforts and the efforts of countless others, in Ireland and elsewhere - to convince Irish health authorities that their proposed policies [practiced, so far as we know, by no other country] are excessively restrictive, may have failed.'
Reacting to Mr Shriver's statement, a spokesman for Home Affairs Secretary Patrick Ho said he agreed. 'Our athletes will only bring goodwill, friendship and sportsmanship to Ireland,' he said.
Commenting on a proposed fund-raising effort by the Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association to send the entire squad of 44 athetes to Dublin as tourists, Mr Ho's spokesman said: 'Our aim is to find ways to get our athletes to the games so that they can participate.'
See Mr Shriver's full statement at www.specialolympics.org