Tough old-timer Arnaldo de Oliveira Sales is fond of platitudes. A favourite is his description of the Hong Kong sporting community, which he likens to a large and contented family. At the head of this family is a strict patriarch virtually beyond reproach. The patriarch lays down firm rules for everyone to follow. After almost 50 years of devotion to public service and to sport in Hong Kong, few would disagree that Mr Sales - a de facto mayor in his role as Urban Council chairman from 1973-81 - had earned the respect common to a patriarchal figure. Which begs the question: why has his sporting 'family' cast him out? It is a question that has been resonating since Mr Sales announced two months ago that he would stand down as president of the Amateur Sports Federation (ASF) and Olympic Committee (OC) after 44 years at the helm. The man they called Mr Sport was calling it a day. A prestigious and coveted job, it enjoys international kudos and authority. The king-maker leads Hong Kong's sports stars to events around the world; he has a say on which sports and individual athletes would represent Hong Kong in everything from provincial meetings to the Olympic Games; he influencea Hong Kong Government policy in relation to sports and recreation. On the surface it looks like a seamless transition: the immensely wealthy Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, a provisional legislator and businessman blessed with his father Henry Fok Ying-tung's close ties with Beijing and Hong Kong powerbrokers, was elected unopposed as the new sports supremo at an annual general meeting on Tuesday night. Xinhua and the pro-Chinese Wen Wei Po carried expansive stories and warm messages of congratulations to Mr Fok. 'Everything went off with clockwork precision,' an erudite Mr Sales said later. 'It was very smooth and not at all contentious.' Mr Fok, the only contender for the posts, which complement the role he took over from his father last year as president of the Football Association, has been publicly lauding the long-time efforts of Mr Sales for months, ever since his fate was sealed. He has given face to the patriarch by saying what a tough act his will be to follow. Mr Sales, too, has been magnanimous, stressing how he alone had decided to call it quits. 'The fact of the matter is it was time for me to step down to devote my attention to my other interests,' Mr Sales insists in his Prince's Building office, crammed with artefacts, books, plaques and memorabilia gathered during the best part of a lifetime's work in sport. Ask if he feels betrayed at being ousted in what insiders say was a carefully choreographed coup, masterminded by Mr Fok's backers with at least the tacit support of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and the wily old campaigner bats the question away with a wave of his hand. 'Timothy Fok and I have always been friendly and very respectful of each other,' he says firmly. But the polite blandishments and tributes which Mr Fok and Mr Sales are publicly exchanging tell only one part of the story. Sources close to both camps say that 78-year-old Mr Sales was cornered. Realising that he could not counter those lobbying on behalf of Mr Fok, who had the numbers if it came to a vote, Mr Sales jumped. Staying on to contest a challenge to a job he has done since 1954 - when Mr Fok was a young boy - could have led to humiliation. 'He believed a fight would have been undignified and very damaging for sport,' said a source. To some stalwarts the ousting of Mr Sales is an unconscionable act of disloyalty; a foul deed perpetrated against a strong, straight-shooting and tireless devotee to public service who commands attention at the highest levels of sport throughout the world. He has long been close to head of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, with whom he signed an agreement last July to guarantee Hong Kong's autonomy in sport. 'I certainly don't believe there was widespread disgruntlement with the way Mr Sales was running things,' said an insider. 'A lot of it had to do with so-called patriotism, having a Chinese face. Many of the people who have opposed him are more interested in personal glory-grabbing - they think of the blazer, the marching in parades, the schmoozing on an international level at sports events, without realising the exhausting work that goes with it.' To others, however, Mr Sales had to go. They saw him as a dinosaur whose rigid ways were antiquated in a modern sports community. He was scorned as an autocrat and a stickler for protocol who ruled a personal fiefdom. Opponents spoke of him trampling over the rights of those who dared to disagree with him. He was too powerful; too old; too unyielding; too confrontational. Not being Chinese didn't help his cause after the handover. 'There was certainly a feeling that the time was right for a local person to take over, rather than someone holding a foreign passport,' said a sports administrator allied with Mr Fok's camp. (Mr Sales, who was born in China, is a Portuguese citizen). 'Frankly I don't think Mr Sales has done a good job at all, but until now he's been impossible to remove. He had built a network of 'yes people'. There was an atmosphere of wariness and fear because if you opposed him the consequences could be damaging for your athletes who were being groomed to go to Olympic Games. The vast majority of sports leaders in Hong Kong support the change.' Contrary to the platitudes, Hong Kong's sporting community has been anything but a 'large contented family' for some time. Mr Sales has long been a trenchant critic of the Sports Development Board, the government-funded body charged with helping nurture and fund sports in Hong Kong. In his address at the annual general meeting a year ago he lashed the SDB and questioned its very existence. 'If the Sports Development Board is unwilling to reorganise or restructure on its own, then the increasing doubts as to its sincerity of purpose, efficacy in operation and usefulness to sports work here cannot be swept under the carpet any more,' he said. 'A serious reappraisal by independent and competent people, charged to put its house in order, must be set in train soon. Hong Kong cannot afford a top-heavy funding agency.' His repeated scathing criticisms of the SDB have stung many people, including those whose livelihoods depend on its continuing to draw the public funds that pay their salaries. To its chief executive, Andrew Ma, an avowed supporter of Mr Fok, the demands by Mr Sales for the SDB to either reform or be abolished were a direct threat to his job. Mr Fok is a vice-chairman of the SDB who realises its important place in sport. 'There has been constant flak and antagonism that divided the sports community,' said a source. 'Sales should have stood shoulder to shoulder with the SDB instead of always criticising it.' Mr Sales made other comments at the annual general meeting which some observers believe were proof of his awareness of a bid to depose him. 'No problems need be anticipated in the future if all in sport act with commonsense and fair play, probity and mutual respect,' Mr Sales said. 'If problems should emerge, whatever they might be, let us at least make sure that they would not be of our own making, whether motivated by self-interest or by playing to the gallery . . . Hong Kong would be the only loser then, for sure.' But it was too late to appeal for chivalry. The knives were out for Mr Sales by the time he accompanied Mr Fok and a handful of fellow Hong Kong sporting administrators to Beijing for meetings with key Chinese officials last May. 'The lobbying of local sports people was subtle in the beginning, but when they weren't getting anywhere it was quite overt,' said an insider. 'There were statements to the effect that if you were a patriotic Chinese, you would support Tim Fok. They said Mr Sales was too old, that it was a new era now. He had intended to step down in 2000, but they couldn't wait.' Sources say Mr Fok, 52, told Mr Sales of his own ambitions for the first time during private talks while they were visiting Beijing. 'He alluded to the fact that F K Hu [a senior vice-president of the ASF and OC and a strong Fok supporter] and Tung Chee-hwa had said it was time for a Chinese to be the leader. Timothy said that, albeit reluctantly, he was the chosen one. Mr Sales simply said, 'well, we will have to see how things turn out'.' Mr Fok declined to respond to a list of questions from this writer on the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power, including expressions of support from Mr Tung. 'I do believe that media overexposure is not good for anyone,' he said. 'My succeeding Mr Sales is, as I have said, a natural progression. We of Hong Kong would be selfish to demand so much more of Mr Sales, who headed the organisation for 44 years and who deserves more time for himself. There is no 'behind the scene circumstance'. In life, as in sport, people move on.' Those who have followed the issue closely say it would have been entirely logical for Mr Fok to enjoy Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's backing. In January, 1996, Henry Fok, in his role as Preparatory Committee vice-chairman and senior member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, sparked controversy by publicly declaring that Mr Tung (then a member of Chris Patten's Exco) was by far the best choice to be chief executive of the SAR. Ten months later, Henry Fok, who has long been China's single biggest sports contributor with donations of hundreds of millions of dollars, revealed how he and Chinese-funded enterprises together rescued Mr Tung's shipping business in the 1980s when it was on the verge of collapse. By October, the momentum for his son Timothy's tilt at power was rapidly strengthening; a groundswell of support that had until then been building behind closed doors became common knowledge. The pro-Chinese press moved squarely behind Mr Fok. A confidential document was quietly circulated by Mr Fok's camp to garner signatures of support from sports chiefs with voting rights, thereby establishing a voting bloc if Mr Sales decided to fight. The writing was on the wall: few officials wanted to be seen as opposed to Mr Fok, their likely future leader, and many signed. 'It was done in a very Confucian and Chinese way,' said another insider. 'Rather than a confrontation in a voting contest, Timothy canvassed support by personal contact. When he was assured he had support, he went to Mr Sales and said 'this is the situation'.' Mr Sales took counsel from those he knew he could trust. 'He felt shocked that someone would attempt to do it in the first place, and then somewhat bemused as to whom they were putting up against him,' said a confidant. 'But in the end he agreed that he would step down for a smooth transition.' As Mr Sales said to an associate this week: 'The time to go is at the top, not after a bloody fight. It's no use washing dirty linen in public.' For all his eccentricities and no-nonsense style, the outspoken Mr Sales had an envied reputation for standing up for Hong Kong's sporting interests and ensuring their autonomy. Should Hong Kong lose its separate entity status, local sports stars would be forced to compete against mainlanders for Olympic selection. Now that the baton has been passed to an ardently pro-China politician, some are asking whether Hong Kong sports will prosper or suffer. It is no secret that Mr Fok wants to foster much closer links with mainland sports; he believes the SAR and China can happily draw on each other's strengths by sharing their respective resources. 'Moving closer doesn't mean compromising our uniqueness,' he told Sports Post this week. But while Mr Fok, managing director of the business empire founded by his father, enjoys (like his father) excellent political connections in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, even some of his backers admit he lacks experience in sports administration. In terms of seniority and service as a vice president on the ASF and OC, he ranked fifth or sixth out of eight. He is not regarded as either a gifted speaker or dynamic leader, but he showed he had significant support. Mr Sales, whose curriculum vitae lists his service to dozens of local and international organisations, vows he will continue to play a role. 'My dedication to sports and to the community does not end. Sport builds friendships which endure,' he says.