Cheung equal to the cut and thrust of gold medal chase

Wheelchair fencer Ben Cheung Wai-leung captured gold at the Atlanta Paralympics as he fulfilled his quest of becoming a champion at the quadrennial Games.

Cheung, who has become a celebrity among local athletes, both able-bodied and disabled, and whose honours have included being named Hong Kong Sports Institute Athlete of the Month twice, grabbed the gold medal in the Category A (amputee) men's individual foil event on his debut at the Games.

It was a grand start for the territory at the Games as the 36-year-old fire services officer beat fast-rising Italian Alberta Peligrini in the final, clinching the territory's first fencing Paralympic gold and increasing the territory's tally of gold medals to seven since Hong Kong first took part in the Paralympics in Heidleberg, Germany in 1972.

Another Hong Kong fencer, Albert Chan Kam-loi, clinched the bronze medal after defeating Yvou Pacault of France in the third place play-off handing the territory a two-medal haul on day one of the Paralympics.

Chan had received a taste of Cheung's fiery determination and skill by losing to the fireman in the semi-finals.

Ranked ninth in the world, Cheung won nine straight matches to clinch his first gold medal in the Games but it set the territory up with another chance of winning gold in the team foil event where Cheng and Chan are expected to lead the territory to more glory. Cheung, whose left leg was amputated when he was injured in a landslide in 1983, had said before leaving the territory that he was confident of clinching a few medals as his preparations had become much more professional under the watchful eyes of former Chinese national fencing coach Wang Ruiji.

'It's the strongest team in fencing history. I'm hoping for two gold medals for the team and another five or six medals although I don't know what colour,' said Cheung before he left on Monday.

Cheung first sprung to prominence when he won a team bronze medal at the World Wheelchair Fencing Championships held in the territory in 1994. He finished sixth in the individual foil and it has taken a little less than 18 months to win the most sought-after prize in wheelchair fencing. He is ranked only fourth in Asia in foil.

The Hong Kong fencer also has chances of clinching medals in both individual and team events in the epee competition.

Hong Kong's other Paralympic fencers also fared well but Raymond Chan Sze-kit, silver medallist at the Barcelona Paralympics in the individual sabre, will remember his Games with disappointment after narrowly losing his quarter-final bout after questionable refereeing.

The Hong Kong delegation had said before leaving the territory for Atlanta that their fencing team would be the strongest in history as their preparations have been professional and intense.

It was Cheung's third individual gold medal at a major competition.

He grabbed gold in the Italy invitational wheelchair competition in 1995 and then retained his title in April in Pisa.

On the lawn bowls greens, Hong Kong's Jimmy Chiu Chung-lun won his preliminary group beating among others, 1988 Paralympic gold medallist Peter Horne of New Zealand.

The Hong Kong women's table tennis team started their campaign on a high note by sweeping aside Switzerland 3-0.

But the Hong Kong men's team faltered in their opening game when they were beaten 3-1 by Belgium.