The pragmatism of late tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung, who championed China's return to the international sports arena some 30 years ago, presaged a more pragmatic approach by Beijing to reunification with Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. 'In many ways, the idea of 'one country, two systems' was actually conceived through sport,' said Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, Henry Fok's eldest son. Hong Kong benefited by continuing to compete with its own team and flag after 1997. 'Henry was very much part of the Chinese Olympic movement, and it's a bit sad that he could not have joined us at this special moment,' his son said from Beijing. Timothy Fok is president of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). His father, a billionaire Hong Kong businessman and a vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, died of cancer in Beijing in October 2006 at the age of 83. He contributed US$25 million to the building of the National Aquatic Sports Centre, or 'Water Cube', where the Olympic swimming events will be staged. In all, he is said to have given more than US$100 million to support China's athletic endeavours, including prize money of up to US$80,000 plus 1kg of gold for each Chinese Olympic medallist. In the 1970s and '80s, Henry Fok used his influence in soccer, his favourite game, to help secure China's return to the international arena after decades of isolation. He was president of the Hong Kong Football Association, vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation and a member of the executive committee of Fifa, football's international governing body. He also lobbied for a pragmatic compromise on the Taiwan issue, according to those close to him. Beijing withdrew from the IOC and related bodies in 1958 over their recognition of Taiwan. 'At that time China said 'either you're [Taiwan] in or we're in',' said Timothy Fok. 'And that lasted for 20 to 30 years.' Taiwan was excluded from the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, and China was invited. Those familiar with the inside story say it was Henry Fok who made the case that it was permissible to have a China with more than one team and that sport should come before politics. As a trusted adviser to top leaders in Beijing and a respected international sports executive, his views carried weight. He befriended the former Fifa president Joao Havelange, accompanying him to China in the mid-1970s when the mainland was just beginning to emerge from the Cultural Revolution. Already, a generation of Chinese athletes had been deprived of opportunities to take part in international competition. 'Hong Kong was instrumental in bringing all the international sports leaders to Beijing at a time when China was relatively remote to most of them,' Timothy Fok recalled. 'Even now, at cocktail parties for the Beijing Games, they say how they remember the dinners at my father's home on their way through.' Fifa was the first to accept the 'one China, several teams' sporting formula espoused by Henry Fok, compelling the IOC to follow suit, according to family insiders. A decision was also made at the highest levels in Beijing that Taiwan could remain so long as it did not use the symbols of the previous regime. Since 1979, Taiwan has taken part in the Olympics and related international sporting events as Chinese Taipei. China returned to the Olympics in 1984 after an absence of more than 30 years. When Xu Haifeng won China's first gold medal in the free-pistol event, Henry Fok allowed himself a rare 'moment of emotion' at witnessing 'the sick man of Asia' rise again, said his son, who had accompanied his father to Los Angeles. Henry Fok then threw his support behind a bid by China to host the Olympics. Though never an IOC official, he cultivated key contacts to advance China's cause, also contributing millions of US dollars to the construction of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. When China won the bid in 2001, Timothy Fok, who was in Moscow, broke the news to his father in Hong Kong. 'My father went for a midnight swim in jubilation,' he said. 'Now China has the best stadium and the best sports prospects, but also they remember where they come from. They honour a lot of the people who have contributed to creating the conditions for the athletes and the movement.'