One Hong Kong gold medal is money well spent

Twenty years after Lee Lai-shan made history at the Atlanta Olympics, Sarah Lee carries the city’s hopes at the Rio Games

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 January, 2016, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 7:21am

The doyen of TV naturalists Sir David Attenborough, in his inimitable way, once described the challenges faced by the female red crab of Christmas Island. The creature, and millions like it, would risk being run over by vehicles and stepped on by humans in their arduous, entranced march to the shore, where their fertilised eggs would be released and lapped up by the Indian Ocean.

A single female crab produces up to 100,000 eggs, 99.99 per cent of which are unlikely to grow into adults. However, as Sir David points out, if just one microscopic egg defies the odds and turns into a little red crab and then into an adult red crab that would eventually reproduce, the mother crab would be just as successful as a sealion, albatross or even a human being who manages to raise their young into adulthood.

An effective development progression involves schools, governing body and an elite training centre, in Hong Kong’s case the HKSI

The crab’s strategy is simply to produce millions of eggs and hope at least one of them survives.

Apart from fulfilling an ambition by mentioning Sir David in a sports article, the nature legend’s measure of success can be used as a metaphor for Hong Kong, especially in an Olympic year. If the tens of millions of dollars spent on identifying, nurturing, coaching and fine-tuning athletes can produce just one medal at the Rio Olympics, is Hong Kong’s sports system as successful as that of countries who win more when taking into account factors such as population, sports culture and resources?

Such debate should be left to the sporting academics but for the public, the main talking point should be the 2016 Rio Games and how Hong Kong’s “system” has thrown up a genuine contender to win the city’s first gold medal in 20 years – cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze.

Lee, a bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics Games in London and world champion in the 2013 500m time trial in Belarus, is generating the kind of gold buzz that surrounded windsurfer Lee Lai-shan in the months before her brilliant triumph at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

San San was a pioneer in the true sense. Not only was she Hong Kong’s first and so far only Olympic gold medalist, she had to start off on her own. She was not a product of the system.

As former Hong Kong Sports Institute chief executive Dennis Whitby pointed out at the time, San San was a freak occurrence. A world-class athlete got together with a world-class coach (Rene Appel) and a gold medal was the result.

Yes, she was eventually absorbed by the system once were talents had matured. However, having been coached by her uncle on Cheung Chau Island, San San was more of a self-made success and the system helped her along the way.

Sarah Lee, though, is a thoroughbred product of the Hong Kong sports assembly line – and proof that a development programme done properly can produce results. She was also helped by her decision to choose cycling, with the Hong Kong Cycling Association having a history of producing trailblazing athletes, going back to Hung Chung-yam and more recently Wong Kam-po, among others.

An effective development progression involves schools, governing body and an elite training centre, in Hong Kong’s case the HKSI.

Sarah Lee, 28, is an example of a classic rags-to-riches sporting success story. Growing up in a tiny flat in Ngau Tau Kok with two siblings, and born with anaemia, she excelled as a sprinter at school. The school then alerted the relevant bodies and HKCA scouts, seeing her potential, took her on board.

She became a full-time athlete at the age of 17 and is now part of the HKSI’s elite squad … and a world-class cyclist to boot.

Like San San, Sarah Lee is blessed by having a top-notch coach in Shen Jinkang, who moulded Wong into one of Asia’s best road racers.

When San San won her gold medal in the Georgia city of Savannah, Hong Kong sent 23 athletes representing 10 sports to the Games. At the London Olympics, where Sarah Lee won her bronze, 42 Hong Kong athletes took part in 13 sports.

This year’s squad may be even bigger if rugby qualifies for the Rio sevens competition.

The HKSI supports almost 650 tier 1 athletes through scholarships at elite and junior levels, plus dozens more at tier 2 and disabled sports. About a dozen of the elite sports backed by the HKSI are in the Olympics, which is the ultimate measure of sporting success.

Certainly, supporting that many athletes every day of the year for several years requires strong financial commitment. Two years ago, it was reported that HK$325 million – derived from the HK$7 billion Elite Athleted Development Fund – was to be ploughed into local sports with the aim of winning medals at the Asian Games and Olympics.

And if just one Hong Kong athlete – Sarah Lee possibly – can stand on the top podium this summer in Rio, then Hong Kong sport can celebrate along with the Christmas Island crab. The HK$325 million spent would be worth its weight in gold.