The commander's last stand
Wong Kam-po, Hong Kong's most successful cyclist, has come out of retirement to help the city's younger riders capture gold in Shenyang
Veteran Hong Kong cyclist Wong Kam-po has competed at every National Games since the handover in 1997, and has struck fear into the hearts of his mainland rivals. So much so that organisers of this year's Games in Shenyang, Liaoning province, have changed the route of the road race to ensure riders from Hong Kong do not have a competitive advantage.
Wong has finished on the podium at the previous four Games, starting in Shanghai in 1997, winning three gold medals and two bronze, and despite his retirement last year after the London Olympics, the 40-year-old has been recalled to the team because of his vast experience on the international stage.
"We want to make sure the medal-winning streak will not be broken in Shenyang and Wong's presence is very important," said Hong Kong Cycling Association chairman Leung Hung-tak. "He is the big brother in the eyes of not just the Hong Kong riders, but also mainland cyclists. That's why we asked him to come back from retirement to help us out this one last time.
"The National Games is the biggest competition in China. Although Wong may not start as a serious medal contender like before, his role as team commander can give the younger members of our squad more confidence. And if the chance comes, Wong can also mount a serious challenge for a medal as he is still one of the best sprinters in Asia."
Wong, who also took part in the National Road Race Championships in June, is excited to resume his role as team leader. "Whether I can win a gold medal again is not the top priority. It's about a Hong Kong rider finishing on the podium," he said.
Leung said organisers had planned to stage the race on a hilly course but changed their minds after 22-year-old Choi Ki-ho was included in Hong Kong's squad as Wong's chief lieutenant.
"Choi is one of the top climbers in Asia and riders from the mainland teams would struggle to catch him on the hills," said Leung. "So the organisers have changed the course to a relatively flat road race in order to make the competition more open. But we still have riders such as Wong and Kwok Ho-ting who are very good when it comes to a mass sprint at the finish. That's why we are confident of a podium finish."
The 190-kilometre race will be held in Benxi in southern Shenyang.
The Hong Kong team also features another promising rider, Cheung King-lok, a time-trial specialist. "He is the fastest rider in the team and at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games he proved his ability by finishing fifth," Leung said. "Cheung was only 19 then and has made great progress over the past three years. I have no doubt he will win a medal in Shenyang in the time trial."
Cheung is favourite for the title after winning the 44km individual time trial gold at the China National Championships in Inner Mongolia last month.
Hong Kong cyclists have won nine medals at the Games since 1997 and the 20-strong team in Shenyang are certain to add to the haul. And it is not only the city's men who are contenders. The women's track team, featuring Olympic bronze medallist Sarah Lee Wai-sze, Wong Wan-yiu, Diao Xiaojuan and Asian junior champion Pang Yao will be gunning for a podium finish.
"We all know Lee is among the favourites for a medal, but we can't be complacent," Leung said. "There are many world-class track cyclists on the mainland so Sarah will have to be at her best."
Lee's major rivals include Guo Shuang, who pipped her to the silver medal in the keirin final at last year's London Olympics, and her sprint partner Gong Jinjie. The duo, both from Jilin province, also won a silver medal in the team sprint at the London Games.
Another promising rider, Zhong Tianshi, is the dark horse. The Shanghai native set a world record in the women's 200 metres on the track in Mexico this year. Zhong also beat Lee in the sprint final at the China National Track Championships two months ago in the absence of Guo and Gong.
In athletics, Hong Kong face a much harder task with the best hopes resting with the men's 4x100 metres relay team. Tang Yik-chun, Lai Chun-ho, Ng Ka-fung and Tsui Chi-ho were crowned Asian champions in India in July, but had a disappointing outing at the world championships in Moscow this month when they finished last in their heat, behind China and Japan.
Their time of 39.10 seconds was a far cry from the 38.94 seconds they recorded in winning the Asian title in India, and way behind the 38.47 seconds - a Hong Kong record - they set last year on their way to qualifying for the London Olympics.
"Consistency is important if they want to mount a serious challenge," said Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association senior vice-chairman Simon Yeung Sai-mo. "Running below 38 seconds is almost a must for a podium finish in Shenyang."
The two fastest runners of the quartet, Tsui and Lai, can run 10.3 seconds, while Ng's best time is 10.4 seconds and Tang's 10.6 seconds. "If each of them can improve their time by 0.1 second, we can gain an overall 0.4 seconds which will be a significant margin," said Yeung. "Our finishing time this year is between 38.9 to 39.2 seconds and if they can make that leap of 0.1 second, a medal is not out of the question."
The team will fine tune their form at a training camp in Dalian before moving to Shenyang.
"There are some very good sprinters in China," Yeung said. "Fortunately, we are not competing against China but individual provinces, but still teams like Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian will be tough opponents."
Su Bingtian of Guangdong ran 10.17 seconds to win the 100m at the Asian championships, while his Beijing counterpart, Zhang Peimeng, just missed the final at the world championships despite setting a new national record of 10 seconds flat.
Hong Kong captured a silver medal in the relay at the 2001 National Games, the same year windsurfer Lee Lai-shan also finished second in the women's mistral. While the relay team will have another chance for a medal, it does not look that promising for the boardsailors.
"China is a strong power in windsurfing, so it won't be easy," said Hong Kong Windsurfing Association executive director Dennis Chau Wai-keung.
The team will now be headed by two London Games Olympians - Leung Ho-tsun in the men's RSX class and Hayley Chan Hei-man in the women's RSX. But they will miss former Olympian Vicky Chan Wai-kei, who announced last week that she would retire from international competition to spend more time with her twin daughters.
Vicky Chan was scheduled to compete in the mistral, but Hong Kong will now have to rely on Lo Sin-lam and Ma Kwan-ching, a 15-year-old who won a bronze medal at the recent Techno World Junior Championships.
In badminton, the Hong Kong men's team won through to Shenyang with a perfect record in the preliminary competition, but coach Tim He Yiming said they still had a of hard work ahead. "We have quite a strong men's team with three good singles players but there are many quality players in China," he said.
The badminton team event will be decided in a best-of-five tie, with three singles and two doubles. Hu Yun is a top-10 player in the world rankings, while Wong Wing-ki, the world number 15, has to rebound from a disappointing world championships in Guangzhou this month when he was knocked out in the opening round. The third singles player is Chan Yan-kit, the world number 49. Former world junior champions Lee Chun-hei and Ng Ka-long will be the key doubles pairing.
"There are 12 teams in Shenyang and they will be divided into two groups with the top two from each reaching the semi-finals," said He. "Since we have beaten Guangdong and Zhejiang in the preliminaries, we need to beat two out of the three other teams if we want to reach the semi-finals."
These three teams are Beijing, Hunan and the People's Liberation Army, who are headed by five-time singles world champion Lin Dan.
The women's team barely made it to Shenyang and He admitted it would be very difficult for them to reach the last four.
There are also five individual events but the Hong Kong players will be hard-pressed to reach the podium with players like Lin world number two Chen Long also in the field.
Equestrian riders, though, have a much better chance of returning home with medals. Showjumper Patrick Lam Lap-suen is the defending champion and favourite to retain his title, while in the team event Hong Kong won a bronze medal four years ago in Jinan, Shandong province. "I think I am a better rider than four years ago," said 30-year-old Lam.
But he admitted his mainland counterparts were also making good progress. "All of them hire good trainers and bring good horses from overseas. So, it's not going to be easy," said Lam. "Teams like Guangdong, Shanghai and Inner Mongolia are quality opponents and will be our major obstacles.
"But we are here to win medals. A lot of hard work and money has gone into our preparation so we are aiming for gold."
Lam will be joined by Samantha Lam, Kenneth Cheng Man-kit and Jacqueline Lai Jing-man in the team event, the same squad who won bronze four years ago.
"As Patrick said, we are not here to fool around," Samantha Lam (no relation to Patrick Lam) said. "We are here to win."
The first National Games were held in Beijing in 1959, but it was not until 1997, three months after China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, that the city was allowed to participate in the nation's most important sporting event; prior to that Hong Kong competed in the Commonwealth Games, which is mainly for former British colonies.
The 12th edition of the Games begin on Saturday in Shenyang, Liaoning province, and will feature all 28 sports that will be staged at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There will also be three additional sports - baseball, softball and wushu, a Chinese martial art that mainland authorities hope will be included at future Olympic Games.
In all, there will be 38 delegations in Shenyang - all the provinces, municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing), Hong Kong and Macau, and special teams such as those from the People's Liberation Army. World badminton champion Lin Dan, for example, will represent the PLA rather than his province Fujian.
An estimated 9,500 athletes will compete in Shenyang, with 223 taking part from Hong Kong in 20 events - swimming, archery, athletics, badminton, canoeing, cycling, equestrian, fencing, golf, gymnastics, handball, judo, rugby sevens, windsurfing, shooting, table tennis, tennis, triathlon, beach volleyball and wushu
The Hang Seng Athlete Incentive Awards Scheme will continue to reward Hong Kong medallists. In an individual event, a gold medallist will get a cash incentive of HK$300,000, while silver and bronze medallists will receive HK$150,000 and HK$60,000 respectively. Teams that win gold, silver and bronze medals will be presented with cash awards in the order of HK$420,000, HK$240,000 and HK$120,000.