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Sarah Lee Wai-sze

Sarah Lee and Hong Kong athletes are not only for money – the prestige of the Olympics is priceless

London 2012 bronze medallist Sarah Lee Wai-sze welcomes more recognition for Hong Kong athletes but does not want to see bonuses become a burden which could pile on extra pressure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 10:45am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 10:30pm

When track cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze kicks off her 2018 World Cup series campaign in a fortnight in Paris, her quest for Olympic honour also begins.

The series, coupled with the continental and world championships in the next two years, forms the qualification to the Tokyo Games.

Now 31, Lee is still a world-class athlete and remains Hong Kong’s best medal hope for Tokyo after her bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games.

But what price do you put on another medal in Tokyo?

When Lee returned home from the London Games,she was awarded HK$750,000 under the Sports Institute’s incentive scheme.

That amount wasn’t far off the HK$1 million windsurfer Lee Lai-shan banked for winning gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Twenty-two years later we are still awaiting the next gold medal. Progress is not only desired in competition and combat, but also in incentives on offer.

Should Sarah Lee win in Tokyo, she can expect a much more lucrative bonus, add it to her growing pot and be able to enter Hong Kong’s overheated property market, arguably the most expensive in the world.

The track rider received about HK$1.9 million for the two individual gold medals and one team silver she won at the Asian Games in Indonesia in August, thanks to additional support from a commercial sponsor.

And this largesse is almost certain to extend to the Tokyo Olympics as indicated by Henderson Land, although the parties involved still have to iron out details on the final amount.

But with a basic HK$3 million for an individual gold offered by the Sports Institute on behalf of the Jockey Club incentive scheme, a gold medal in Tokyo should be worth at least HK$6 million – which would buy you a 350 square foot flat in one of the new towns, Tseung Kwan O.

Henderson Land provided a dollar-for-dollar matching fund on top of the Sports Institute’s cash awards scheme and it makes sense the sponsor would pony up more for Tokyo as the Olympics is the biggest of all Games.

That HK$6 million bonanza would put Hong Kong up near the top of the table.

A report by CNBC during this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics said Singapore offered S$1 million (HK$5.7 million) cash awards for an individual gold, while Indonesia put up US$746,000 (HK$5.8 million) for each of its Olympic gold medal winners.

There are strings attached for Singapore athletes as they have to plough back 20 per cent to their respective national sports associations for future training and development.

In Western countries where many of the athletes rely on part-time jobs or crowdfunding to cover costs, their cash awards for major games are also minimal. Italy is the highest with an offer of US$166,000 (HK$1.3 million) for an Olympic gold medal, while the US Olympic Committee gives out US$37,500 (HK$300,000) for a gold medal. That’s probably because they win at least 40 at nearly every Games.

Henderson Land handed over HK$13.2 million to Hong Kong’s 107 Asian Games medallists from 17 sports and even if they doubled the Institute’s HK$3 million Olympic incentive, , they will certainly give away less in the end.

How many medals can Hong Kong win at an Olympic Games? There has only been three since the 1996 Games. Table tennis pair Ko Lai-chak and Li Ching were the men’s doubles silver medallists at the 2004 Athens Games.

“Of course, we welcome more recognition to the athletes,” Lee said at the Asian Games incentive presentation. “But we don’t want to see it [cash incentives] become a burden for the athletes and give us extra pressure.”

Gymnast Shek Wai-hung, who won back-to-back Asian Games gold in the vault, stressed the financial incentive was only a bonus and not his priority.

“As an athlete, the biggest dream is to perform well for your team, with the Olympic Games the biggest stage,” said Shek, who became the first gymnast from Hong Kong to qualify for Olympic Games when he made it to London in 2012. He was forced to miss the Rio Games four years later because of a severe shoulder injury.

“That remains the most important thing in my career as an athlete, with or without the cash incentive which I consider only as a bonus. The prestige that comes with competing for your country on the Olympic stage is always priceless.”