Hong Kong should really stop treating its Paralympic champions as second-class athletes

Yonden Lhatoo despairs at the city’s unequal treatment of disabled athletes, who have won far more medals than their celebrated able-bodied counterparts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2016, 2:47pm

Not to rain on everyone’s parade, but while we’re going on and on, ad nauseam, about how awesome Hong Kong’s athletes were at the Rio Olympics and how proud they made us, let’s not lose track of the hard facts.

This city has competed in every Summer Games except one since 1952. Our medal tally to date: one gold for windsurfing in 1996, a silver in table tennis doubles in 2004, and a bronze for cycling in 2012. Nada in Brazil this year.

Now look at Hong Kong’s track record in the Paralympics. We have been there at the biggest global sporting event for disabled athletes every year since 1972. Our tally so far: 120 medals, 38 of them gold.

We are ranked 33 out of 116 nations and jurisdictions.

Singapore, by comparison, is ranked way below us at 85 with only six medals, including one gold. But Singapore won a spectacular gold in Brazil this time, and apparently that’s all that counts.

When an able-bodied man swims or runs faster than his peers along a straight line over a specified distance, that is somehow a greater achievement, to be celebrated on a far grander scale, than a disabled person doing the same thing.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m far more impressed by a person who can play basketball in a wheelchair like a pro than by a, well, pro.

Shouldn’t our Paralympic gold medallists be getting much more recognition and adulation than their Olympic counterparts who can only dream of comparative glory? Why is it that we have blanket media coverage and government patronage of Hong Kong athletes who almost-but-never-quite make it to Olympic medal-winning rounds – and I don’t mean to belittle their talent or work – but their Paralympic peers return home time after time, with multiple medals round their necks, to relative silence and obscurity?

Is it because they are somehow “second-class citizens”? That’s how 11-time Paralympic gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson of Britain put it recently in the face of the biggest crisis in the history of this sidelined sporting spectacle.

The Rio Olympics are over, and most people have had their fill of flag-waving fan indulgence, but it’s not quite finished as the Brazilian capital still has to host the 2016 Paralympics. And it’s not looking good. Only 12 per cent of tickets have been sold, and severe budget cuts have rendered some teams unable to even get to Rio because they’re depending on travel grants that have dried up.

Compare this disgraceful state of affairs with London 2012, when they sold a record 2.7 million tickets for the Paralympics – a million more than in the Beijing Olympics. There was so much excitement and hope that the world’s disabled athletes were finally getting due recognition, but it looks like that momentum was a flash in the pan.

Come September 7, Hong Kong will have 24 athletes competing in the Rio Paralympics. These are amazing people at the top of their game after overcoming debilitating physical and mental disabilities. They deserve a whole lot more than the usual lip service we give them.

This weekend, Hong Kong will host and honour the Chinese national squad, fresh from Rio. And just ahead of that, we welcome home our own Olympic heroes.

We will all extol their deeds and dutifully recite the chorus that the glory is in going head-to-head against the world’s best, never mind the medals.

When our Paralympic heroes return similarly from Rio, but with a string of medals in tow, let’s damn the double standards for a change. Because, seriously, if the consolation party for our brave Olympians turns out to be bigger than any ceremony for our winning Paralympians, I’d say it’s rather unsporting of us.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post