Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying yesterday denied his unprecedented decision to turn down an invitation to officiate at the start of the Hong Kong Marathon was down to a political beef with title sponsor Standard Chartered Bank.
The city's chief executive has officiated at every marathon since the handover, and Leung did the honours for the first time last year. But his attitude to next month's run took on a political dimension on Saturday, when a website reported claims that Leung and his allies had been pressing banks, including Standard Chartered, to pull their advertising from Apple Daily.
The House News claimed Leung delayed accepting his invitation after the newspaper refused to comply with the request to pull out of the newspaper, known for its fierce criticism of local and central governments.
Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing yesterday confirmed that he, not Leung, would represent the government at the February 16 race. But questioned by reporters later, Leung dismissed the conspiracy theory.
"Absolutely not," he told reporters who asked whether his snub was due to the bank's advertising with the paper, owned by tycoon and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai Chee-ying.
"I will have fewer days to work in February because I will be on leave for 10 days. Therefore I asked [Tsang] to attend … to express the government's support," Leung said on a visit to a public-housing construction site.
"Having attended an event in the past does not mean an official will attend it every time thereafter. Otherwise, we won't have time to attend new events."
Kwan Kee, chairman of marathon organiser the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association, said he learned three days ago that Leung would not attend.
The chief executive gave no reason, Kwan said, adding: "He only said he could not go."
The association would welcome Tsang as officiating guest, and politics would not affect the sporting event, Kwan added.
Standard Chartered said last night that it would not comment on the rumour.
The marathon was revived in 1997 thanks to sponsorship from Standard Chartered. It has become the city's biggest mass-participation event. Some 73,000 people will take part in the event, including half-marathon and 10-kilometre runs, on February 16.
The reports of pressure on Apple Daily advertisers came after the founder of free newspaper am730 claimed companies linked to Beijing were pulling out of his paper. Along with a controversial change of editor at Ming Pao, the reports have led to concern about media freedom.