Why are Hong Kong’s Olympic athletes going to be treated like prisoners in Rio?

Decision not to let team leave the athletes’ village is embarrassing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2016, 11:24am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2016, 6:06pm

It’s a given of every Olympics news cycle that the build-up to the event will be dominated by warnings that the host city won’t be ready, disaster is on the way and even the sky is a 50-50 chance to collapse.

We saw it two years ago ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and four years ago before London. Once the sporting action gets underway, these soothsayings of doom are quietly forgotten about, until a year or so before the next one when they crank into motion once more.

This is despite the fact that one of the few, if not the only, Games not to have been ready was Antwerp 1920, when the stadium wasn’t finished and athletes slept on fold-out cots in an abandoned school; they had a pretty good excuse given the country’s infrastructure and economy was still devastated from World War One.

This time though, less than a month away from the opening ceremony at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, the prophecies do seem to have a little more weight than usual.

Do a Google News search for ‘Rio Olympics’ and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d typed Book of Revelation by mistake, with a beast with seven heads and 10 horns about to rise from the hideously polluted waters of Guanabara Bay. One of the top links this week was Gawker’s summary of the issues, titled ‘All the Reasons the Rio Olympics are F*****’

If you haven’t been paying attention, highlights include: the Zika virus, human body parts washing up on Copacabana beach, the state being forced to declare “financial disaster” to get a federal bailout, police holding up banners declaring ‘Welcome to Hell’ at the airport, murders and robberies on the rise, antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria in the water where the sailing will take place, and the rowers literally being sent up s*** creek (but with paddles) due to massive amounts of human faeces in Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

With all that in mind, perhaps it’s understandable that Hong Kong’s Olympic squad will be confined to barracks for the duration. “It’s for their own safety,” said Chef de Mission Kenneth Fok Kai-kong as he revealed that HK team members won’t be allowed out of the athletes’ village unless they have a very good reason.

“If they are bored, there are also many social and cultural activities inside the village, which they can enjoy,” he added. Presumably he did not have in mind the news - another staple story in the Olympics build-up - that 450,000 free condoms will be distributed at the village.

Hong Kong’s team were given a talk during the week warning them of the myriad dangers. I messaged a few to ask what they thought about the HK Olympic Committee’s decision to keep them on a leash. Perhaps mindful of who pays for their tickets, their replies were generally diplomatic, their disappointment at not being able to sightsee combined with acceptance of the committee’s decision. One dissenting voice did wonder why athletes couldn’t even go out in groups.

See the contrast in the US approach: “We’ve given them some guidelines about what to do, what to bring, what not to bring, how they should travel if they’re going outside of the village and some things like that,” US swimming coach Bob Bowman said this week. In other words, we’ll treat them as adults.

Surely if there is anything the much-tainted ‘Olympic spirit’ still has going for it, it’s in the idea of brotherhood and humanity, opening your eyes to a different side to the world than you may be used to, meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise, etc. Being locked in a gated community because your bosses seemingly don’t trust you not to stroll blindly into the nearest slum laden down with expensive electronics doesn’t seem to be what Baron de Coubertin had in mind.

Is our Olympic Commitee’s decision truly borne out of genuine concern for our athletes’ well-being or is it more about fear of negative headlines and loss of face if one of them were to be mugged? Perhaps if Mr Fok - scion of one of Hong Kong’s richest families who thought nothing of spending a reported HK$30 million on his wedding - forgoes the five-star luxury to which he is accustomed and joins the athletes in the spartan village for the duration of the games the edict would leave less of a taste in the mouth. That seems unlikely.