Why Does Hong Kong Have Its Own Team at the Olympics?

After two years of anguish and upheaval, Hong Kong’s spirits couldn’t have been lower – but its Olympic athletes have managed to give the city a boost. From the giant video billboards in Causeway Bay to the TV screens on every MTR station platform, it has been impossible to escape the news of Hong Kong’s best-ever medal haul. 

Hong Kong’s 46 Summer Olympians have brought home six medals from Tokyo. Edgar Cheung Ka-long won a gold medal in fencing, Siobhan Haughey earned two silvers in swimming, Grace Lau won a bronze in kata, Lee Wai-sze a bronze in cycling, and table tennis players Doo Hoi-kem, Lee Ho-cing and Minnie Soo Wai-yam collectively earned a bronze as well. All told, that’s twice as many medals as Hong Kong has ever won before, from windsurfer Lee Lai-shan’s groundbreaking gold win in the 1996 games to table tennis champions Ko Lai-chak and Li Ching’s silver in 2004 to Lee Wai-sze’s previous bronze win in 2012. 

It has been an extraordinary two weeks for sport in Hong Kong. And while the Tokyo games have wrapped up, the Paralympics are still to come – and just six months from now, Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, putting Hong Kong’s (decidedly smaller) cold-weather team to the test. As Hongkongers revel in this rare glimmer of good news, some might be asking themselves a question: just how did Hong Kong end up with its own Olympics team, anyway? 

To answer that question, you need to go back to 1936, when a young Tai Hang-born swimmer named Yvonne Yeung became the first athlete from Hong Kong to compete in the Olympics, which that year were infamously hosted by the Nazi regime in Berlin. But she didn’t swim under the Hong Kong flag, or the Union Jack – she swam for the blue sky, white sun and red earth banner flown by the Republic of China. It was her only choice, because while Hong Kong was a British colony, its residents were not granted the privilege of British nationality, even if they were considered subjects of the British crown. 

In a sense, Yeung’s participation in the 1936 Olympics was just a prologue to the real story. Because it wasn’t until 1951 that Hong Kong was officially granted its own National Olympics Committee, giving it the same status as any other country participating in the games. Credit for that achievement goes to a man named Arnaldo Augusto de Oliveira Sales, better known to the public as A de O Sales, or by his friends as Sonny. 

Born in 1920 into a Portuguese family that had lived in Guangzhou for five generations, Sales was sent to be educated in Hong Kong at the age of eight. After being forced to shelter in Macau during World War II, along with other Portuguese citizens, he returned to Hong Kong to join his family’s business. In his spare time, he rowed with the Victoria Recreation Club (VRC), for which he served as honorary secretary.

A de O Sales in 1983

That led him to push for more support for amateur sports in Hong Kong, setting up the Hong Kong Olympic Committee in 1949. When the Commonwealth Games approached the VRC about sending a rowing team to the 1950 games in Auckland, it motivated Sales to apply to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to grant Hong Kong formal recognition. Hong Kong’s amateur athletes finally had a team to represent them – especially important given that the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War excluded them from participating in the Chinese team, which was now split between rival People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC) sides. 

The colony sent its first-ever Olympics team to the 1952 games in Helsinki. (The PRC also participated, but not the ROC, which withdrew in protest.) “We only sent four swimmers because other sports were not as developed as swimming and not up to regional standards,” explained Sales in a 2004 interview with the South China Morning Post. Those four swimmers were Cynthia Eager, Irene Kwok Kam-ngor, FX “Sonny” Monteiro and Cheung Kin-man. Their journey to Finland was funded by money raised during a gala held by the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association. 

In the end, only Cheung had a shot at winning a medal, advancing to the semi-finals before he was eliminated. But it was a remarkable accomplishment nonetheless, and it seems everyone noticed. As the games wrapped up, the South China Morning Post reported that “the Hong Kong Olympic team has set one record at Helsinki – the reputation of having made the greatest number of friends from among the 4,000 athletes of 62 nations.” 

Hong Kong has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics since then, with the exception of the 1980 Moscow games, which were boycotted by many countries in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Sales was officially named president of the Hong Kong Sports Federation and Olympic Committee in 1967, and he oversaw its participation in every Olympics between then and 1996. 

Despite the team’s best efforts, however, athletic activities in Hong Kong were perennially underfunded and underdeveloped, as academics Wen Wu, Patrick Lau Wing-chung and Zheng Jinming explain in “A Historical Review of Elite Sport Development in Hong Kong,” published earlier this year in The International Journal of the History of Sport. The success of Hong Kong athletes depended mainly on the modest funding offered by the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee, as well as a variety of amateur sports clubs such as the VRC and the South China Athletic Association.  

But Sales was nothing if not dedicated. When a Palestinian militant group named the Black September Organization stormed the athletes’ village at the 1972 Munich games, Sales manages to slip past police and negotiate directly with a Black September leader, convincing them to release two officials from the Hong Kong team who were being kept hostage. “It never occurred to me that I might be in danger. My mind was focused on getting the Hong Kong athletes out,” Sales told the Post. The hostage situation ended with a failed police ambush and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September.

Sales’ last Olympics was Hong Kong’s most successful, thanks to Lee Lai-shan’s gold medal at the Atlanta games. But his biggest achievement before retiring in 1998 was negotiating the survival of Hong Kong’s Olympics team after the colony’s 1997 handover from Britain to China. Some international critics have suggested that this gives China extra representation at the Olympics. Last month, an article published by the Associated Press asked, “Is it fair that China—with one team labelled China and the other Hong Kong, China—is getting multiple pathways to Olympic podiums?” 

But while Hong Kong’s team is unusual, it is hardly unique. Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands are all American territories that have their own Olympics teams. Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands are British dependencies, similar in status to Hong Kong before the handover, and they too have their own teams. 

Hong Kong’s Olympics team remains independently managed and distinct from that of mainland China, and its athletes have always reflected that. Many have deep local roots, like Lee Lai-shan, who was born on Cheung Chau and learned to sail in the waters off Kwun Yam Beach. Others are Eurasian, like swimming champion Siobhan Haughey, who was born here to an Irish father and Hong Kong Chinese mother. According to the Post, she was once offered the chance to represent Ireland at the Olympics, but she turned it down – because Hong Kong is home.  

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