Warm climate nations at the Winter Olympics: Hong Kong's struggle
Hong Kong joined the throng of warm climate nations at the Winter Olympics back in 2002 when Cordia Tsoi Po-yee and Christy Ren qualified for the Salt Lake Games in short track speed skating. Yet, after three consecutive Winter Olympics, most residents still don’t know about Hong Kong’s national speed skating team.
Vancouver Games Hong Kong representative Han Yueshuang feels that Hong Kong’s speed skating team has less support than ever before. After losing her first qualifier, Han said: "I cannot expect anything at this moment. I didn’t get support from the SF & OC during the whole preparation period for the Winter Olympic Games. They didn’t care about us."
Vancouver marked Han's second Olympic experience, but bungled preparations marred the milestone. The government was only able to provide Han with a light jacket and she caught a cold. Han subsequently failed to qualify in any of her three events.
I felt that I had to worry about things that an athlete should not have to worry about, like how we would pay for our next trip. — Cordia Tsoi
No snow, no ice -- no problem
This year's warm climate nations debuts included Dow Travers, an alpine skier from the Cayman Islands and Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, aka "snow leopard," a downhill skier from Ghana. Winter Olympics have featured equatorial teams in the past ranging from the Phillipines and Madagascar to Jamaica. The Jamaican bobsled team gained particular notoriety from their 1988 debut and inspired the Disney film "Cool Runnings."
Hong Kong speed skaters know the story well. Cordia Tsoi said many people compared subtropical Hong Kong’s debut to the Jamaican team. Commonalities don’t stop at climate as lack of support seems to be an endemic problem facing winter Olympians in warm weather nations. Lack of funding stopped the Jamaican bobsled team short of the Vancouver Games and Hong Kong’s national speed skating team has struggled with government support since its inception in 1998.
"In the beginning, it was very difficult for us to represent Hong Kong," Tsoi said. "I felt that I had to worry about things that an athlete should not have to worry about, like where our sponsorship would come from, and how we would pay for our next trip. As a national team, we should have received full funding from our country, right?"
Tsoi qualified for the 2002 Games in a used uniform that had seen better days. Lack of proper apparel is echoed in Han Yueshuang's experience this year. The Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong had a sponsorship agreement under which athletes must wear only Adidas attire at official events, but the Federation didn’t provide an Adidas winter coat. Han wore a government-approved light jacket and shivered through seven hours of opening ceremony obligations. She caught a cold and failed to qualify in any of her three events.
Edith Lau, an executive with the Hong Kong Skating Union, said that the government declined to fund Han’s preparations until a few months before she flew to the Olympics.
"After the East Asian Games, the government said they would give more support to sports, and I think winter sport is just another option among many others," Lau said. "They should not discriminate against winter sports. We’ve gone to the Winter Olympics three times. Not all of our summer sports can say that."
Han’s dismal short track speed skating results were not unusual for the Hong Kong squad. Although Hong Kong has known Olympic glory in the past -- with windsurfer Lee Lai-shan's gold medal -- no Hong Kong skater has advanced beyond preliminary heats at the Winter Olympics.
The Hong Kong Skating Union includes 10 speed skaters and 20 figure skaters who compete at international competitions. The organization receives HK$140,000 per year from the government. The sum does not include all-expense-paid trips to the Winter Olympics if athletes qualify. Lau said that, during Olympic years, the HKSU consumes its entire budget on sending skaters to World Cup events necessary for Olympic qualification.
The future of subtropical speed skating
A middle-aged Raymond Lee sat on a bench sharpening his son’s long blades for his Tuesday night practice at Festival Walk.
"They are all the champions of the future, but we have to let them train first," Lee said about his son Roger and four other young skaters.
Roger loves how fast skating feels like flying, how his body becomes like an engine in a racecar. Admiration from friends makes winter sport seem perfectly natural in subtropical Hong Kong: “They are proud of me. They say, ‘Wow, you skate so fast,’ and they think I’m really cool.”
Roger began figure skating five years ago. He became fascinated with short track speed skaters when he noticed a group practicing one night. He switched sports, and he now represents Hong Kong in junior events. The 13-year-old carefully tightened his skates and stepped onto the ice surface in a skintight suit labeled with “Hong Kong” on his back. Lee leaned against the boards to watch his son dart past in a blurry flash of red. The skaters were prepping for the Asian Short Track Speed Skating Championships to be held in Japan on March 13-14.
Edith Lau reckons that if Hong Kong wants young skaters like Roger to become serious medal contenders, it should start by building a standard short-track speed skating rink with proper padding along the boards. The padding alone costs about HK$40,000 and the ice rink cost would be astronomical. But Hong Kong Skating Union struggles with mundane details. Lau said HKSU has trouble affording insurance and training expenses in northern China.
Meanwhile local interest in speed skating has tapered during the past year. Lau said Sunday practice session attendance has dropped from 15 to 10 skaters. She blames a familiar culprit -- lack of government support.