By Rod Parkes
Back in colonial days, the accepted wisdom was that Hong Kong did not produce world-class sportspeople. While this belief was a little unfair to those who brought home occasional medals from the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in disciplines as diverse as lawn bowls, taekwondo and ten-pin bowling, these were isolated successes and the territory lacked strength in depth.
Apart from football (older fans will remember the glory days of Derek Currie), sport was largely an amateur affair. Parents typically discouraged their children from pursuing a sporting career, steering them instead to choices perceived as more lucrative, such as medicine and law.
This picture began to change with Lee Lai-shan’s first Olympic medal for the territory in 1996. Then after Hong Kong’s return to China, the SAR gained one further medal at each of the 2004 and 2012 games – but it was the breakthrough performance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021) that was a real game-changer. Having never won more than one medal at any previous Olympiad, the territory came away with six, including one gold.
This remarkable success story for the SAR was followed by an even more impressive performance at the just concluded 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou (held in 2023), which yielded a record 53 medals, as well as breaking several local and Asian records. These results have been widely acclaimed, but critics are already questioning whether this level of achievement can be sustained. So how does Hong Kong really stack up against the competition?
In the official results table, which is traditionally ranked in order of gold medals won, Hong Kong stood in 49th place out of the 206 competing territories, 93 of which won medals, in Tokyo. In Hangzhou, it finished 12th out of 45 – both creditable top quartile finishes. But there are other ways of looking at the results.
For a start, the focus on gold medals can give an unjust impression of total performance. In Tokyo, Ukraine earned a commendable 19 medals overall, making it 16th by total medal count, but, with just one gold, only 44th in the official medals table – not too far above the three territories which earned a solitary gold but no other medals: Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Morocco in 63rd place. In Hangzhou, Kazakhstan ranked 5th in total medals, but only 10th in golds. By this measure, Hong Kong’s ranking improved from 49th to 40th in Tokyo, and 12th to 10th in Hangzhou.
As expected, the medals table is invariably dominated by the most populous countries: the USA in Tokyo, and China at both events, with Japan (host nation in 2021) coming in behind them. South Korea was the next ranked Asian country, while India atoned for its lacklustre Olympic showing with a respectable performance in Hangzhou, where the Games featured more of the sports in which it excels, such as cricket which gave it two golds. And Uzbekistan emerged as a new sporting powerhouse, coming in just behind the leaders with a strong 5th or 6th place finish in golds and total medals respectively across a range of sports.
Compared with these giants, Hong Kong is a minnow. They have the advantage of much larger populations to pick from – China alone has 188 times as many people as the SAR. Adjust the results to take account of population, however, and things look startlingly different, with several “little big winners” coming into play. The diminutive republic of San Marino, with fewer than 35,000 inhabitants, topped the table in Tokyo, with its tiny team of five entrants winning three medals – a feat even more remarkable considering the enclave had never previously won a medal. Two small island territories, Bermuda (population 65,000) and Grenada (113,000) took the next two places. On this metric, Hong Kong ranked significantly higher at 30th, while China dropped to 77th and the USA to 60th.
On a per capita basis in Hangzhou, Bahrain would have raced to victory, with 10 of its 12 golds coming in athletics. Second-placed Macau – which did not even compete in Tokyo – captured six medals, all in Wushu. Hong Kong came in third, with its 53 medals spanning a more diverse range of events across almost all the 40 disciplines featured. Hong Kong’s traditional strengths in swimming, cycling, fencing – spearheaded by Edgar Cheung Ka-long – and rugby sevens were on full display, but successes also came in less expected disciplines like rowing, equestrianism, golf, triathlon, squash, and even bridge.
Of course, not all small territories did well – Bhutan, usually expert in archery, was off the mark this time, joining two other minuscule countries and war-torn Yemen which also struck out. Not that a large population is any guarantee of sporting success – the world’s second (now first) most populous nation, India, sat at the foot of the table on a medals per capita basis in Tokyo, with fourth most populous Indonesia only two places above it at 91st.
Nor is a large team an advantage in absolute terms, but as a percentage of population it appears to help – several countries with a sizable squad relative to their populations, including San Marino, Grenada and New Zealand, did well in Tokyo on a per capita basis. Macau’s per capita success in Hangzhou may owe something to the fact that one Macau citizen in every 3,709 was in its team. Hong Kong and Bahrain also ranked high on this metric, with one in 10,898 and 11,028 respectively. At the opposite end of the scale, only one in every three million Syrians and one in two million Indians was in their country’s delegations.
Beyond population, cultural differences play a part in success – sports-mad countries like Australia and New Zealand regularly punch above their weight. Conversely, in some places, religious and cultural factors limit the development of sporting potential, particularly among women. Afghanistan’s Taliban regime halves the country’s chances by fielding only men, and while Saudi Arabia has plenty of sand, don’t expect to see a Saudi women’s beach volleyball team in bikinis any time soon! This is not a concern in Hong Kong, with four women among its five medal winners in Tokyo – ever-improving swimmer Siobhan Haughey won two, making up the total of six, and topped this with six medals in Hangzhou.
A country’s sporting culture also helps determine the sports in which it can compete successfully. Where a country’s national sport is not on the Games roster, this tends to handicap its chances. Some sports come and go from the Games; and Grace Lau’s wins for Hong Kong in karate at both Tokyo and Hangzhou will not be repeated in Paris 2024, when the sport will not be featured. Indeed, some countries’ national sports, such as camel racing in the UAE, or the rough-and-tumble variant of polo played with a goat carcass in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, are unlikely ever to feature at an Olympiad. With no specific national sport, Hong Kong’s effort was spread across 14 different sports in Tokyo and more than 30 in Hangzhou.
How successful were Hong Kong’s athletes individually? One more way of looking at the results is the proportion of each country’s athletes who succeed in winning a medal. In Tokyo, San Marino (0.6 medals per athlete) and Bermuda (0.5) were clear winners, with at least half their teams of five and two respectively taking a medal home. Hong Kong gained 0.143 medals per athlete, placing it equal with three other countries in 21st place. In Hangzhou, China achieved the remarkable feat for a large country of winning more than 0.432 medals per team member, while Hong Kong was in mid-table at 0.077.
Efforts have been made to analyse Olympic results by the Gross Domestic Product of competing territories, but correlation is difficult because of varying income equality and the differing natural advantages enjoyed by some countries. Nevertheless, a country’s relative wealth certainly has an impact on its sporting success. Football is the most popular game in the world because all it requires is a ball, a patch of waste ground, and some improvised goal markers. Basketball is another favourite in poorer countries, with only a ball and two hoops needed.
By contrast, other sports require considerably more expensive equipment, such as boats and sailboards, horses, or other facilities. Countries prosperous enough to afford plentiful public swimming pools, tennis courts and golf courses have a head start in developing sporting talent. It is unlikely that Sarah Lee would have become the first local competitor to win medals in two different Olympiads – London 2012 and (nail-bitingly late) in Tokyo if Hong Kong had not invested in a velodrome. And much of the SAR’s success in recent years has been shepherded by the Hong Kong Sports Institute, founded as the Jubilee Sports Centre in 1982. Many of Hong Kong’s champions have emerged from the Institute, which provides training and financial support to promising young athletes in selected sports.
Meanwhile poverty-stricken Bangladesh is the most populous nation never to have won an Olympic medal. It won only two in Hangzhou, despite its massive 170 million population. In 2008, Bangladesh’s Olympic Association head Wali Ullah attributed the country’s poor results to its weak economy and widespread corruption. Pakistan, with three medals – one per 83 million of its population – fared only slightly better. At the other end of the scale, Macau brought home a remarkable one medal per 79,000 people.
From whatever perspective one views it, Hong Kong’s sporting performance has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent decades, yielding excellent results in Tokyo and Hangzhou. Questions about the scale and allocation of government subsidisation are certainly legitimate – some well-funded athletes were left trailing in Hangzhou – but ultimately, winning depends on the talent and determination of the contestants. As Hong Kong’s sporting heroes inspire a new generation of dedicated youngsters to take up sport, future success will surely follow.
Rod Parkes has lived and worked in Hong Kong since 1975. His “portfolio career” has spanned IT, HR, quality management, teaching, brand strategy, and three decades of writing and editing for clients ranging from start-ups to major multinationals, with occasional forays into journalism on the side. He loves Hong Kong, for all its faults.
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