City Beat

Yes, politics and sport are intertwined, but we can admire athletes for their own sake

Hongkongers gave such a warm welcome to China’s Olympics medallists for their personal achievements rather than any political connotations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 4:13pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 9:56pm

Two weeks ago, a reader sent me an email concluding that trying to take politics out of sports could be as unrealistic as asking someone born big to lose an impossible amount of weight.

Responding to my last column on what Hongkongers would associate with the visit of China’s Olympic medallists, the reader suggested that, sometimes, athletes deliberately try to make a political statement, and if they don’t, their governments or the media will.

This reader has a point which I won’t dispute. But sports is still not politics, regardless of the reality that the two are linked in many senses, especially in mainland China which follows a long-established “state-sponsored” system of sports.

That’s why the story of Lang Ping, the hero behind the Chinese women’s volleyball team and its golden victory in the Rio Games, provides some food for thought.

Lang, nicknamed “Iron Hammer” for her superb performance that won gold for China in the 1984 Olympics, became the first player-turned-coach to win another long-awaited top honour for the country in Rio. But had she not distanced herself from politics, she might not be who she is today.

Rather than follow in the footsteps of some of her peers who became national sports officials, she chose to study in the US in the 1990s, then made a living by coaching overseas, including a stint training the US team that defeated China in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For that she was once regarded as a traitor by some of her compatriots.

But as the very personification of the Chinese team’s “never give up” spirit, she seized the opportunity to serve her country when offered the chance to be the chief coach for the national team for Rio. Patriotism was, of course, the driving force when she took up the offer.

Here in Hong Kong, there is never a moment when the government is not being criticised over its insufficient support and lack of policies for sports development

It’s interesting to note that while Lang was hailed as a national hero after the Rio Games, she reportedly received even more applause for her next move. She immediately decided to secure a contract for Zhu Ting – one of the key members of the champion squad, dubbed “Little Iron Hammer” – with a volleyball club in Turkey, making sure Zhu would continue to get world-class professional training as well as a handsome income.

This time no one criticised Lang for sending one of the country’s top players overseas. Instead she was praised for making very thoughtful career arrangements for a promising girl from a relatively poor rural family.

Lang understands well that athletes are humans, that they need a normal life, and that political slogans don’t work in this regard. At the same time, this doesn’t contradict the need for an athlete to answer the call when it comes and take pride in serving the country. It’s quite natural.

Back in Hong Kong the warm welcome the medallists have received is also something very natural. Many love them because they’re great athletes and highly impressive young people, rather than care about any political connotation attached to them.

Understandably, it’s hard to separate politics completely from sports for one simple reason: government policy and funding are necessary for sports development.

When mainlanders are now questioning the efficiency of the “state sponsorship” model, there are also discussions in China about the role of UK Sport, the British government’s sports development arm. Many netizens are convinced it played a crucial role in properly allocating government funding to promote elite sports, eventually enabling Britain to overtake China and become world number two with its haul of gold medals in Rio.

Here in Hong Kong, there is never a moment when the government is not being criticised over its insufficient support and lack of policies for sports development.

It is common sense that sports development and government support are intertwined. And although some sort of political input on the part of the government is inevitable, why not just enjoy sports for the sake of sports.

Where there is a will, there must be a way to distance sports from politics – if not completely separate the two altogether.