Get behind us: Hong Kong Olympic official appeals for government to take sport more seriously
Former Olympian Ronnie Wong says sustained support should be provided for Hong Kong sport as city’s athletes arrive in Rio
Ronnie Wong Man-chiu prefers to keep it real when it comes to Hong Kong sport and politics ahead of the team’s trip to Brazil.
As a high-profile Olympic stalwart since 1968, Wong is in prime position to use the Rio Games as a rallying cry for change in the city’s sporting landscape – something dear to his heart with visions of a future in which sport thrives as a major industry, providing jobs and on-field opportunities.
Politically, tensions are testing the one-country, two-systems concept amid calls from certain sections of the community for Hong Kong to seize its own identity, even broaching the taboo topic of independence.
And with Hong Kong sport already an independent entity from China and local athletes expected to challenge for medals in three sports, the Rio Games offers the ideal platform for Wong to fuel the “we are Hong Kong” political fire.
But the grizzled Hong Kong Olympic Committee secretary general, who escaped gun-wielding terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games, refuses to use the Olympics for anything but ensuring Hong Kong athletes are optimised to perform their best. After all, that’s his simple remit.
So while he makes the most of the opportunity to air grievances about what he says is the government’s overall apathy towards sport, Wong is loath to use the Olympics as a touchpoint for his call.
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“It would be easy to say, let our athletes do well at these Olympics and that will show the government that they should take sport more seriously,” said Wong, who competed as a swimmer at the 1968 and 1972 Games. “But it’s not only about the Olympics. It should be all the time. They should look at the egg and not only the chicken.
“When table tennis won silver in 2004, and then when the football team won gold in the East Asian Games [in 2009], suddenly they throw a lot of money at them.
“It’s too emotional a reaction. They should look at the overall needs, such as which sports have a chance to succeed over a sustained period.
“It’s about establishing a policy at government level in which sport is taken seriously as a pursuit and an industry. Sport is growing in popularity in Hong Kong, but there is scope for growth in terms of creating a sporting industry in which people see sport as a viable career path.
“There are athletes who, when they retire, need a career and we try our best to give them opportunities. I think sport can be as big as construction or manufacturing and contribute to the economy, but there has to be government support for this to happen.”
Hong Kong’s best hope of a medal rests with Sarah Lee Wai-sze, the sprint cyclist who won bronze at the London Games. The city also has chances in badminton and table tennis. A medal of any colour would be a boost to sport’s profile in Hong Kong and the athlete’s sense of belonging to Hong Kong.
Wong, however, puts that sporting autonomy in perspective.
“Hong Kong has its own identity in sports, but as Hong Kong citizens we also have to be realistic,” said Wong. “I agree we should have our own identity, just like the people in China who are from the north and the south. They have pride in their own regions.
“But the question is, to what extent? The sad part is that whenever Hong Kong and China are involved in a sporting contest, there is confrontation. This is something we don’t want to see.
“Right now, there are a lot of things that require us to cooperate with China, in terms of sports exchanges and coaching.
“Even when it comes to Hong Kong’s involvement in international federations, if we want to have some sort of influence in bodies such as [swimming’s] Fina, we need China’s support.
“If this relationship is ruined, at the end of the day it is the Hong Kong people who will suffer.
“In terms of identity, we know we hold independent status in sports, but after all, we are part of China.”
For now, though, Wong is more concerned about the well-being of his 38 athletes. Brazil’s economy has been in free fall, resulting in rising crime while the mosquito-borne Zika virus is also causing panic.
If that wasn’t enough, reports emerging from Rio say facilities at the Olympic Village where athletes are staying are inadequate. Plumbing is poor, electrical wires are dangling from the walls and water is leaking from ceilings. “We are anticipating problems,” said Wong. “We have already advised athletes and officials they shouldn’t go out too much and to use official transport to venues and training, and try to stay in the village as much as possible.
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“If they really want to go out in the city to somewhere other than venues, they must have approval from us. And they should go out in groups.
“As far as the medical situation is concerned, in view of the situation in Brazil, I think we have to be quite strict,” said Wong. “We have provided mosquito nets and spray for the athletes, as well as oils. They also have sportswear provided by our sponsor, who has given them long-sleeve shirts.”
Those visiting Rio are advised to wear long-sleeved tops and light-coloured clothing to deter mosquitoes. Hong Kong officials are also advising athletes to prepare for spartan accommodation at the village and cold nights during the southern hemisphere winter.
“The latest information is that it is quite cold there,” said Wong. “Also, the village is not quite ready. There are a few issues with hot water ... blankets and several other things.
“We can only let our team know what is happening and ask them to bring along items from Hong Kong.”