Former iron lady of Hong Kong sport wants fair play in Olympic eligibility

Betty Mair is urging the IOC to recognise the city's unique status

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 10:56pm

She is a voice from the past but Betty Mair is her same old self and does not pull her punches.

Mair is urging the Hong Kong Olympic Committee to sort out the contentious issue of Hong Kong-born athletes - or those who have lived here for most of their lives - being unable to compete at the Olympics because they don't hold a local passport.

Mair, a former chief recreation and sports officer with the now-defunct Recreation and Sports Service (RSS), has thrown her weight behind the latest athlete to fall foul of an International Olympic Committee ruling that athletes wishing to compete at the Olympics must hold a passport of their respective country.

"What everyone, including the Hong Kong Olympic Committee and certainly the IOC, fails to recognise is this city is a unique case and a unique situation calls for unique thinking," Mair said. "There is an extraordinary reason why we walk into the Olympic Games under the Bauhinia flag and that is because we are not a country but a special administrative region of China.

We need people who can appreciate that there is no other place like Hong Kong
Betty Mair

"A de O Sales [a former head of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee] fought for our independence as a sporting entity and that is why we are still able to take part at the Olympics and other multisports games as a separate National Olympic Committee. But this should also mean our athletes should be able to go, especially if they are born here or have lived here for a long time," Mair said.

Freestyle skier Alexander Glavatsky-Yeadon, despite being born in Hong Kong, is not eligible to represent the city at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in January as he doesn't have an SAR passport.

His case could have wider implications for athletes in other sports with the Asian Games also set to follow the same rules, causing problems for cricket, rugby and hockey, which have a large number of athletes like Glavatsky-Yeadon who hold Hong Kong permanent identity cards.

Mair, 81, returned for a reunion of former colleagues from the RSS. The former senior sports official, who was keenly involved in the setting up of the Jubilee Sports Centre and the Sports Development Board (the forerunners to the Hong Kong Sports Institute), was amazed by developments but said change would only be cosmetic if the rights of genuine local athletes were not safeguarded.

"I have been highly impressed with what I have seen. I was taken around the new Hong Kong Sports Institute and what a facility that is. I walked into the gym there and it looked like a torture chamber - it was very impressive," laughed Mair, who is now based in Sydney.

"But while Hong Kong has made tremendous progress on that front, what I'm concerned about is the rights of people living here representing the 'territory'," she said.

Mair was born in Hong Kong in 1932 and had her primary education at Quarry Bay School. When war clouds gathered over the world, the family was evacuated to Australia but her dad had to return to Hong Kong because he was a policeman. He was imprisoned at Stanley and spent the war in a concentration camp.

"He was 14 stone when he went in but when he came out he was just eight stone," said Mair.

Those early years ingrained a sense of justice in her and she is still a champion for fair play - a code she has lived by after returning to Hong Kong in 1959 to take up a job with the RSS.

On Friday, 55 years later, she met up with her former colleagues - "more than 120 of us" - for a reunion at the Boy Scouts headquarters in Austin Road.

When she was chairwoman of the Hong Kong Amateur Roller-skating Association in the early 1990s, Mair once stormed out of a meeting of the Amateur Sports Federation & Olympic Committee, apparently in disagreement that the governing body was unhappy with the role of the Sports Development Board - which despite being funded by the government - was in her mind an independent body owing to the calibre of the people on board.

"Hong Kong needs such independent thinking. From the little bit I have learned since returning, and from keeping an eye from afar on what is happening, I believe the government is more involved in sport these days. But they should not get too involved.

"What sport needs is strong leadership and independent thinking. We need people who can appreciate there is no other place like Hong Kong in the sporting context.

"We need people who will uphold that spirit and fight for the rights of our athletes to take part at the Olympics. The Olympics might have rules which pertain to other countries, but we are unique and everyone must appreciate that fact."