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The Hong Kong Olympics team’s future as a separate entity from that of mainland China is secure, the territory’s Games chief Timothy Fok said, despite political tensions exposed by his squad’s historic achievements over the past week.
Siobhan Haughey, a Hong Kong swimmer, won a second silver medal in Tokyo on Friday, cementing the Games as the city’s most successful ever. Fencer Cheung Ka-long won the city’s first gold medal since its 1997 handover from the UK in the foil event.
But the euphoria over their victories quickly became politicised when crowds in the territory celebrating Cheung’s gold booed and shouted “We are Hong Kong” over the Chinese national anthem, which played as he accepted his medal on the podium in Tokyo this week.
Police have launched an investigation and said on Friday they had arrested a 40-year-old person, who also waved Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag at the scene, for insulting the national anthem.
The display of resistance was a stark reminder of a strong lingering undercurrent of discontent in the Asian financial centre, despite a crackdown on dissent by Beijing after anti-government protests in 2019.
China last year imposed a tough new security law last year on Hong Kong, with the first person to be convicted under the legislation, a former waiter who rode a motorbike into a police line last year, given a nine-year jail term on Friday.
But Fok, president of the national Olympic committee of Hong Kong, said he had urged athletes to ignore the controversies. There was an understanding in China that Hong Kong had “a separate identity” to the mainland and there were no plans to integrate the city’s team with that of its bigger neighbour, he said.
“They have [1bn] people, we only have 7m. I am very proud with this new encouragement and success. Sport will be a very important part of the development of Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong authorities are keen to demonstrate the crackdown has not had an impact on the city’s vibrancy. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said last week that arts and culture in the city were “booming” and there had been no weakening of people’s freedoms.
The city was promised a high degree of autonomy and freedom of expression after 1997. This autonomy was symbolised by Hong Kong’s right to have its own Olympics team, although it was also agreed that China’s national anthem would be played at medal ceremonies for the territory’s athletes.
Shushu Chen, a lecturer in sport policy at the University of Birmingham, said the mainland had shown significant support for elite sport development in Hong Kong
“I don’t think the Chinese government will advocate in future Olympics that Hong Kong athletes should be integrated under the main PRC flag,” she said. “That will lose the sense of identity of Hong Kong . . . I don’t think that is what the Chinese government is trying to do.”
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the permanent body of China’s parliament, said that any change was unlikely under “one country, two systems”, the Chinese government policy governing Hong Kong’s autonomy from the mainland since the handover.
Hong Kong’s only other gold medallist, windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, accepted her medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games under the British Hong Kong colonial flag as “God Save The Queen” played.
Cheung, whose parents were both Chinese national league basketball players, is a cat lover who often posts pictures of his family’s American shorthair Zimba. “It means a lot to show to the world we can do it,” he said. “We are not only a city. We can fight for victory.”
While Cheung made no political comments after his win, pro-democracy groups were quick to seize on the victory. During the 2019 protests, anti-government demonstrators sang their own anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” in shopping malls. After Cheung’s ceremony, netizens substituted the Chinese anthem for the song in viral videos showing Cheung on the Tokyo podium.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp also generated controversy when a lawmaker Nicholas Muk criticised one of the territory’s top badminton players for wearing a black T-shirt — a colour favoured by the 2019 protesters — without displaying the Hong Kong flag.
After Muk accused him of supporting the pro-democracy movement, the player, Angus Ng Ka-Long, wore a different shirt to try to calm things down as he also came under attack from Chinese netizens.
Even though he was the eighth seed in the men’s singles competition, Ng was beaten by Guatemalan shuttler Kevin Cordon, who was ranked 59th, leaving many supporters blaming Muk for distracting Ng.
“It is probably not true that there was no impact. I have been trying hard to calm down and I want to focus on the competition,” Ng said after losing. “But how can I forget it completely.”