Hong Kong, China – When cyclist Sarah Lee beat her opponent by a photo finish of 0.019 seconds in the sprint semifinal in the Tokyo 2020 Games, the crowd glued to the Jumbotron screen inside the Olympian City mall in Hong Kong burst into deafening cheers, some pumping their fists into the air.
Lee, who rose from humble beginnings in public housing to the podium in the 2012 London Olympics as a bronze medallist, has long been lionised as a local sport legend – and an exemplar of the territory’s trademark grit that has powered its transformation from a sleepy fishing village into a dynamic international city.
In the wake of the 2019 protests and with China’s imposition of the National Security Law, Hong Kong has seen its political freedoms diminish and pro-democracy politicians and supporters arrested or go into exile. The United States and others have said the territory no longer enjoys the “high degree of autonomy” promised in the “one country, two systems” framework under which the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Yet for the two weeks over the Olympics, the “one country, two teams” status quo not only afforded validation to those Hong Kong residents who see themselves as a people apart but also bridged, if fleetingly, the political divide that has riven the territory.
The team returned home with an historic haul of one gold, two silvers and three bronzes, the territory’s best-ever performance.
“You can see there was a brief moment of euphoria among the fans, but whether sport is a means for solidarity, in the long run, remains to be seen,” Marcus Chu, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who researches the politics of sport, told Al Jazeera. “After all, the city doesn’t have a deep tradition of sports culture.”
Just how Team Hong Kong came into its own has been shaped by the city’s history as a precursor to and a beneficiary of China’s rise as a sports powerhouse.
In the 1936 Berlin Games, colonial Hong Kong fielded eight footballers and a swimmer as part of the fledgling China republic’s Olympic delegation.
Even though in that era sport was almost exclusively a pastime for the elite, training to be stronger and faster appealed to patriotic Hong Kong Chinese aspiring to save China. Grassroots sport clubs, such as the South China Athletic Association, sprang up to address the growing demand for organised practice.
That was why even after Hong Kong made its debut in the 1952 Helsinki Games – the first to allow colonies to compete – some of the record-setting athletes chose to represent China – to bring glory to the motherland.
In a city without any professional leagues, the return to Chinese sovereignty has proved positive for sport, bringing in an influx of immigrant career athletes from the mainland. Before that, Hong Kong’s only win in 40 years was a gold medal in wind sailing in the 1996 Atlanta Games.
By 2004 in Athens, two mainland-trained ping-pong players clinched silver for Hong Kong in the doubles table tennis. One of them, Li Ching, coached the women’s team to bronze in Tokyo.
“We’ve gone from having mainland players represent the team to now seeing Hong Kong-born and -bred achieve results – this is something that does me proud,” said Tony Yu, chairman of the Hong Kong Table Tennis Association.
Hong Kong’s athletes regularly train in the mainland, especially those who play the sports which are China’s strong suits. Some of this year’s Hong Kong medallists signed up for coaching in the US.
Arrest over anthem
While it has been rare for Hong Kong to face-off against China, whenever that happens the match-up is an occasion for those chafing at China’s perceived political encroachment to mount a form of resistance.
Thundering chants of “We’re Hong Kong” are expressions of a kindred, rather than ethnic, identity. Although Team Hong Kong flies its own flag, China’s national anthem plays for the city.
Over the past few years, so many sports fans took to booing the anthem to give voice to their dissent that legislation was enacted last year to criminalise any disrespect of the Chinese anthem.
Still, that did not stop some fans from jeering when the anthem played during the ceremony where Hong Kong fencer Edgar Cheung was bestowed the gold medal. On July 30, a man was arrested on suspicion of insulting the Chinese anthem and encouraging others to join him.
Cheung’s gold medal – Hong Kong’s first since the handover – and the team’s unprecedented haul, may mean the government’s efforts to boost the territory’s athletic prowess are finally are reaping results. Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-handover chief executive, made it a priority to invest in elite sports as a means to enhance the territory’s soft power and forge “a distinct Hong Kong identity”.
At a time when that identity seems under siege and Hong Kong’s core values and cherished institutions under unprecedented pressure from Beijing, the Tokyo games have given people cause to come together.
That was why last Saturday at Olympian City – so named to mark Hong Kong’s first gold medal – found Vincent Law and Rose Chan, in their 40s, stopping by to watch and cheer Lee on in the cycling semifinal.
“As a Hong Konger, I’m proud of the athletes’ accomplishment,” said Chan.
The couple also said they could not imagine an Olympics without Team Hong Kong – for reasons pragmatic and sentimental.
“If Hong Kong’s team becomes part of China’s,” said Law, “our athletes won’t stand a chance to qualify.
“I’d be very sad,” said Chan.