For Hong Kong sport, 1996 was the year in which the territory was able to smash through a 44-year barrier of under-achievement and soar into the rarefied atmosphere of champions. Thanks to Lee Lai-shan, affectionately known as San San, a rakish island girl from Cheung Chau, Hong Kong finally graduated with honours in world sport, and it did so on the ultimate stage - the centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. Her victory sustained weeks of unprecedented euphoria as Hong Kong revelled in the knowledge that at last it had its own sports hero - a genuine locally born world champion. Snapping up her gold for windsurfing at the Atlanta Olympics, Lee overshadowed other sporting issues. Questions over Hong Kong's sporting status beyond the handover, government funding and the future of the Sports Institute were elbowed aside. The gracious Lee cleverly de-politicised her achievement in the face of media pressure to link her gold medal to Hong Kong's final Olympics under British rule. 'It doesn't matter what colour the flag is; as long as it rises up the middle flagpole, I'll be happy,' she said after the medal ceremony in Savannah, Georgia, site of the Olympic yachting competition. Lee, whose international acclaim could be measured in terms of reports in Time magazine and in Newsweek's end-of-year special, dedicated her medal to the people of Hong Kong and called it a symbol of what could be achieved. 'This medal is not for me but for the Hong Kong people,' she said. 'I hope they realise that Hong Kong people can compete with the world's best.' After her triumph, Lee was flooded with gifts and cash worth more than $2 million. Her victory itself was one of class and determination. After a disappointing 11th place at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, San San and her coach, Rene Appel, were not taking any chances. She started attending sports psychology sessions with former Sports Institute therapist Trish Leahy, who had subsequently moved to Canberra and was specially flown to Savannah to be at Lee's side. Appel had meticulously planned Lee's assault, ensuring the team arrived in Savannah at least a month before the competition to adjust to the conditions. In the end, it boiled down to race eight of what turned out to be a nine-race event. Lee entered the race at the top of the standings but still without a victory in any of the previous seven races. She knew a first or second place in the race would snare the gold. With many in Hong Kong watching live on television, Lee won the race in style to take gold from New Zealand's 1992 champion, Barbara Kendall. However, while Hong Kong glittered in her gold, the truth was that she was an exception. The Atlanta Olympics highlighted the fact that, while the territory's athletes continue to improve on the world stage, they are still in the Olympic lower divisions. Table tennis players Chan Tan-lui and Chai Po-wa missed what was probably their last chance for Olympic glory. Chan reached the quarter-finals of the women's singles competition while Chai was beaten a round earlier in controversial circumstances. Chai was facing match point against North Korea's Kim Hyon-mui when Cuban umpire Dagoberto Egozcue penalised her a point for slapping her hand on the table and Kim won the match. The decision prompted heated exchanges between the umpire and the Hong Kong camp but the decision was upheld by the International Table Tennis Federation. Egozcue has not umpired since. There was also disappointment for hurdler Chan Sau-ying, the territory's perennial under-achiever. Chan was Hong Kong's flag-bearer at the Atlanta opening ceremony but failed to carry herself in the women's 100 metres hurdles. Overcome by nerves after a false start in her heat, Chan clocked 13.63 seconds, well outside her Hong Kong record of 13.14 seconds. Her Olympic performance followed disappointments at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, both times narrowly missing out on a bronze medal. Much was also expected of cyclist Wong Kam-po, one of Asia's top riders, at the Olympics. But he failed to shine in the 221-kilometre road race, earning a 'did not finish' by his name after he was lapped by the leaders. However, it did nothing to hinder his overall progress because he still ended the year as Asia's number one, winning the Tour of South China Sea held in Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau. While sport in 1996 revolved around the Olympics, there were plenty of events before and after July to keep Hong Kong athletes busy. On the soccer fields, Instant-Dict finally won the silverware after five years of misses when they pipped favourites South China for the First Division championship. But normalcy appeared to be resuming halfway through the 1996/97 season with South China leading the standings. The Caroliners also came from behind to beat Instant-Dict twice in a double-elimination competition to win the Senior Shield, the first major trophy of the season. There were also major developments for the national soccer side, with Kwok Ka-ming, who led Hong Kong to a memorable 2-1 win over China in 1985, returning as coach after an eight-year break. Kwok has been entrusted with planning Hong Kong's 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign against Thailand and South Korea. Hong Kong's national rugby union side also ended 1996 on a note of uncertainty. It started with a defeat by South Korea in the preliminary rounds of the Asian Rugby Football Tournament in Taipei. The Hong Kong players appeared to be bent on intimidating their opponents rather than playing the kind of rugby which had already earned them a victory over eventual Asian champions, Japan, earlier in the year. Their performance prompted speculation that the players were under instructions to intimidate their opponents and eventually led to the resignation of coach George Simpkin. New Zealand returned to Hong Kong in March to win their third successive Sevens title. But before the year was out, Hong Kong's most famous international tournament lost long-time sponsors Cathay Pacific and Hongkong Bank. But the loss of the two big sponsors was seen more as a liberation for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union which it was said could now aggressively seek new sponsors willing to put in more money. The territory continued to be a prosperous venue for major sports events. World number one Pete Sampras won the Salem Hong Kong Open in April, while Australian Patrick Rafter defeated American Vincent Spadea to win October's Marlboro Championships. Hong Kong also played host to the world's golfing superstars. German Bernhard Langer won the US$500,000 Alfred Dunhill Masters at Fanling, beating a strong field which included Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, Spain's Seve Ballesteros and South African Ernie Els. Just over a month after Langer's victory, Fanling staged the US$350,000 Andersen Consulting Hong Kong Open, featuring American PGA player Scott Hoch, which was won by Filipino Rodrigo Cuello, the first Asian champion in seven years. A few days later, American Gerry Norquist won the US$500,000 Omega PGA Championship at Clearwater Bay. The year was also marked by assurances Hong Kong athletes received on their future. Hong Kong, China and the International Olympic Committee vowed that the territory would still be treated as a separate entity in post-handover sporting events but would compete under a new flag and a new anthem.