If Hong Kong Olympic hero Sarah Lee Wai-sze really wants to quit, then let her do so with the dignity she deserves rather than amid petty squabbling
Cycling star can’t receive the support of a full-time athlete if she is not prepared to put in the miles, but sport’s authorities also should not alienate the London 2012 hero
At the Rio Velodrome, a stunned silence engulfed the Hong Kong sports hacks as Sarah Lee Wai-sze crashed to the track, ending her strong hopes of improving on the bronze medal she had won in the keirin four years previously.
As she spoke to journalists, one broke down in tears – “Stop it or you’ll get me going too,” said Lee, choking up.
The tears were a reflection of what reporter and cyclist both knew – that the best chance of only a fourth-ever Hong Kong Olympic medal was gone, and who knows how long it would be before another came along.
Hong Kong cycling coach Shen Jinkang insisted as recently as June that “as the 2020 Olympic Games [approach], I believe Lee Wai-sze can win a gold,” but he surely believed otherwise.
Lee will be 33 then and Olympic track cycling is ever more a young person’s game. The average age of Olympic medallists in both of Lee’s events (six keirin, 24 sprint) is 25 – the age she was in London. Only five of those 30 medallists were 30 or over, and the average is trending down.
Coach Shane Sutton left his post at Britain’s all-conquering track team last year amid claims of sexist bullying, the most egregious offence allegedly telling a rider to “go and have a baby” because she was “too old” to compete – at 25. He could have broken the news more delicately, but it underlines the sport’s belief that shelf-lives are short.
So it’s no surprise that Lee, 30, could be ready to quit amid signs of a rift between her and the sport’s authorities.
She apparently wants to cut back on training to study. Curiously, she would not say what she is studying, but something biblical seems likely for the devout Baptist. She has complained that competition and training prevents her from attending church regularly and becoming part of a religious community.
“I am now taking a rest and spending most of my time with my family and friends in Hong Kong,” said Lee this week as she picked up a cheque for HK$120,000 for two bronze medals at China’s National Games.
“Also, I’ve just begun another degree course and I want to put more effort on my studies. I won’t be competing any more this year and I will skip the World Cup.”
Fair enough, and who would begrudge her a break after some 13 years and countless kilometres?
But whispers were emerging that hint at a falling-out.
“There have been a lot of discussions, but the bottom line is that an athlete needs to maintain a certain amount of training hours to be a full-time athlete,” a source told the Post, suggesting that Lee wanted to have her cake and eat it.
The cake is a monthly stipend of HK$38,840 from the Sports Institute, but the rules are clear that a minimum of five days and 25 hours a week of training is required, with no other full-time job or full-time study allowed.
By my very rough reckoning, Lee might have earned HK$7 million or more in awards for medals and HKSI support over the years. That’s around HK$45,000 a month on average since she became a full-time athlete in 2004, although obviously in reality it’s heavily weighted toward recent years.
Given her ubiquity on adverts around town, it’s probably not unreasonable to at least double that ‘salary’ when endorsements are included. Not bad for a girl who grew up in a 200 square foot public housing flat in Ngau Tau Kok.
And we don’t begrudge her a penny – the funding she has received is a drop in the ocean compared to the floods of subsidies for local tycoons’ cartels, and of far more benefit to society. Her inspirational effect on a generation of kids is alone worth many times the price.
But if Lee no longer has the burning desire that led her to No. 1 in the world, and wants more out of life than slogging round and round a velodrome day after day, then she can’t expect the same support.
Equally, the sport’s authorities won’t want to be seen by the public as “forcing out our Olympic hero”, and should surely want to keep her on board to coach the next generation.
Hopefully a common-sense, amicable, solution is found – and if Lee does wants to quit, let her do so with the dignity and honour she deserves rather than amid petty squabbling.