One country, two teams: how Hong Kong kept its identity in the sporting arena

With Juan Antonio Samaranch and the International Olympic Committee in its corner, local sports chiefs had a powerful ally in maintaining their autonomy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 3:00pm

The Hong Kong athletes were worried. It was the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, and they were talking among themselves.

“This is our last Asian Games as a Hong Kong team,” said one.

The handover was less than three years away and there was no clarity as to the future of Hong Kong’s sporting identity after the return to Chinese sovereignty.

In reality, though, the Basic Law had provided for Hong Kong to continue as a separate entity in sports and other areas. However, despite these provisions being clearly spelled out, the Asian Games marked the start of a roller-coaster ride that toyed with the fears and hopes of Hong Kong athletes and involved players at the highest levels of sport and government.

For many officials, it was not so much wanting to deny Hong Kong its sporting autonomy after July, 1997, but more a case of ensuring that they were seen to be instrumental in securing the former colony’s sporting future.The first time Hong Kong’s sporting independence was flung into the public domain was just before the start of the Hiroshima Games when Juan Antonio Samaranch, the late president of the International Olympic Committee, responded to a question from the South China Morning Post at a press conference in the Japanese city.

“Hong Kong should have no fears,” he said. “Hong Kong athletes, under the Chinese flag, and through a special agreement with the IOC, will continue to participate in not only the Asian Games but also the Olympic Games after 1997.

“It is also part of an agreement between the Chinese and British over Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s future is safe ... this has been solved.”

Nothing to worry about, then? Not so fast. Samaranch’s assurance was supposed to ease fears but it only served to kick off a series of back-and-forths that continued until hours before Hong Kong was handed over to China.

The IOC’s support for Hong Kong was key. Despite the Basic Law, Hong Kong needed world sport’s ultimate governing body to accept the conditions. However, China also wanted to make it clear that they were the masters of Hong Kong’s future, not the IOC.

Soon after Samaranch’s statement, Chinese sports minister Wu Shaozu, in an interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, cast doubts over Hong Kong’s status.

“That was in keeping with Hong Kong’s hopes,” he was quoted as saying. “But China, for its part, has not yet agreed to it. We will make a decision through future consultations.”

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Even A. de O. Sales, the long-time president of the Amateur Sports Federation & Olympic Committee who helped create a sporting identity for Hong Kong in the 1950s, was taken aback, saying: “Of course, everything will depend on China ... and on the people of Hong Kong, not only in sport but in all other activities. In the best interests of Hong Kong, everything should be done through consultation with the Chinese.”

Samaranch was furious. He confronted Wei Jizhong, secretary general of the Chinese Olympic Committee, for an explanation and the mainland official was forced to clarify.

Wei said the Yomiuri report was wrong, and that Wu’s comments were related to Hong Kong’s participation in the China National Games after 1997. Wei went on to reassure Samaranch that Hong Kong’s sporting autonomy was guaranteed.

Sales, the former Commonwealth Games chief who failed to keep Hong Kong in the games for countries in the British empire, privately was sceptical of Wei’s excuse, saying there would be no reason for a Japanese newspaper to ask questions about the China National Games.

But in those few days in Hiroshima, Samaranch and Sales had clearly come out on top.

Over the next three years, the future of Hong Kong sports hung heavily over the territory’s athletes but despite the uncertainty there was a ray of golden sunshine at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

In the coastal town of Savannah, Cheung Chau-raised Lee Lai-shan (or San San) became Hong Kong’s first and last gold medallist under British or Chinese rule (so far) when she won the women’s windsurfing competition.

The buzz generated by San San’s success carried through to July 1, 1997, and it was with high hopes that Samaranch eventually signed on the dotted line during the handover ceremonies, allowing Hong Kong to compete independently of China in all sporting events around the world for at least 50 more years.

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Although Hong Kong has failed to win Olympic gold again in the 21 years since Atlanta, the overall sporting environment has improved. Increased funding and better talent identification programmes have allowed Hong Kong athletes to become more competitive across the board.

There have been two more Olympic medals since the handover. Hong Kong won silver through the table tennis men’s doubles pair of Li Ching and Ko Lai-chak at the 2004 Athens Games, while track cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze took bronze in women’s keirin competition at the 2012 London Olympics.

Hong Kong has also enjoyed autonomy in all things sport over the past 20 years.

Indeed, sport is one of the few avenues in which Hong Kong people can attain a sense of identity, especially when they face China in competition – as was the case with two football qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Hong Kong has also benefited from China, with athletes often spending months on the mainland making use of their superior facilities and training with their “big brothers and sisters”.