How a shared smile at the Athletes’ Village taught Hong Kong fencer Vivian Kong the meaning of Olympic Spirit

“The tears were before the bout, the most emotional part was when they called my name,” says a pensive Kong as her thoughts switch to life after Rio

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 7:50am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 10:33pm

Hard not to be cynical about the ‘Olympic spirit’. Hard to get a definition of it, too.

IOC president Thomas Bach mentioned “shared humanity” and “selflessness” in his Opening Ceremony orations, but that can’t be it, as his organisation basically epitomises their opposites.

Luckily, Hong Kong’s Vivian Kong Man-wai was on hand to explain with an anecdote from the Athlete’s Village.

Kong created a minor bit of history on Saturday, winning her team’s first-ever Olympics bout with a win over Lyubov Shutova, a former world champion from Russia.

A couple of hours later, her Olympics was over, but not before she had run the reigning back-to-back world champion, Italy’s Rosella Fiamingo, extremely close, losing 15-11 in the last-16. Fiamingo was eventual runner-up to Emese Szasz, underlining her quality.

Golden moments on Day 1 at the Rio Olympics

Kong took a year out from studying a Bachelors in International Relations at Stanford University to pursue fencing full-time and try to make it to the Games. Now thoughts turn back to the real world, and the future.

“There are a couple of things I really want to do,” said Kong, about plans after graduation. “An internship with the United Nations, and there’s the Yancheng Scholars programme at Peking University.

“ I did a study-abroad programme there and really liked it – as an IR major it would be really great to get the Chinese perspective after studying in the US for four years.”

China’s version of the Rhodes Scholarship sounds great, but what was that about the United Nations?

“I’d love to, I’m really interested in security, humanitarian affairs. When we trained in Geneva I got to visit UN headquarters and I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to work here – or New York, but I haven’t visited that one yet.”

Kong off-handedly mentions the UN’s peacekeeping force as another option, as you do, before explaining how a spot of dinner in Rio helped cement her humanitarian goals.

“I got really stressed about the competition a couple days ago. At the dining hall I made eye contact with a guy from North Korea, smiled and he smiled back.

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“That’s when it hit me, yes the world’s really big, there are places I’ve never heard of, but at the same time the Olympics brings everyone together.

You realise people are a lot closer a lot more similar than we think even though there’s the language barrier and culture.”

Kong apologises for “going off-topic”, but we weren’t desperate for in-depth technical fencing analysis, to be entirely frank.

“It’s very inspiring knowing that everyone worked so hard to get here, it’s just an honour,” she added.

“And just to represent your country, the sense of belonging to Hong Kong and knowing that I gave hope to my friends and family back home is exciting – but I just wish I did better.”

Kong even felt the need to apologise for not beating the world champion, which was rather ridiculous.

After her first match, Kong wiped what appeared to be tears – but were actually drops of sweat – from her eyes. That’s not to say the day was not emotional though.

Vivian Kong makes history for Hong Kong as she wins team’s first-ever Olympics fencing match

“The tears were before the bout, the most emotional part was when they called my name – registering the crowd, seeing my parents and finally being there.”

The raucous Carioca Arena 3 had the atmosphere of the Maracana rather than that more normally found at a sport associated with gentleman duellists rather than football louts. Brazilian Nathalie Moellhausen was in action on another piste during both Kong’s bouts, and the roars of approval, chants of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ and the like were so loud it was literally impossible at times for others to compete. Somehow Kong was able to concentrate.

“I was quite shocked about how loud they would be,” she added. ”I’m really happy for the Brazilian team and the Brazilians to have a good strong fencer – but we had to stop or pause in our match because it was loud we couldn’t hear the referee!”

Kong was looking forward to taking mum and dad and her best friend from college for some sightseeing in Rio before leaving the Olympian heights for the mundane. Whether the future involves saving the world with the UN or not, Rio ‘s lesson in the spirit of the Games is one she’ll never forget – and she’s eager for more.

“I hope this is a confidence boost. I really want to go to a second Olympics. I had no idea it would be like this, way beyond my imaginations of what the Olympics would be like.

I know I have a lot to work on, but I really want to be back in Tokyo.”