Olympics newsletter

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Golden girl's new role

Joyce Siu
April 30,2008

Hong Kong's top Olympian, Lee Lai-shan   Photo: AP

Having been away from training for four years, Lee Lai-shan has lost the deep tan that comes with long days spent in the sun. The former windsurfing champion misses the adrenalin rush of racing on the waves – a feeling that can only intensify as the Olympics draw closer.

San San, as Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medallist is known, dropped out of competitive sport to raise two young daughters, but being able to soak up the Games as a television commentator should take the edge off her yearning.

“It’s a shame that I won’t be taking part in the Beijing Games as an athlete because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when our country is hosting the Olympics. But I’ve chosen to stay with my children,” said Lee.

“I still have great passion for the sport and miss the competition. So it makes me feel better that I can still be part of the Games as a commentator.”

The 37-year-old, who won her gold at Atlanta in 1996, is a member of the ATV team covering the opening and closing ceremonies in Beijing and will also commentate on the sailing events at Qingdao.

Being a TV presenter is a fresh challenge even though Lee has had plenty of experience talking in front of cameras – so she’s working hard to ensure a smooth show. “I’ll also need to clean up my lazy Cantonese tones,” she said. Lee, who is in good shape after giving birth to her second daughter, Kallie, last August, said she may return to competition some day.

“It’s an unfulfilled dream [to win a second Olympic medal],” Lee said. Her hopes were scuttled at Athens in 2004 after she was disqualified in one race and penalised for jumping the gun in another.

“It was a blow. I did well in the first half of the competition and was confident that I would be among the top three, but I couldn’t catch up after the penalty,” she said. “I still want to prove my ability.”

If she attempts a comeback, Lee’s first international competition will be the 2009 East Asian Games in Hong Kong. “It’s hard to strike a balance between family and career. But if I resume competition, I want to win. I wouldn’t be there just to participate,” she said.

At Qingdao, she will seek advice from former rival Barbara Kendall, also a mother of two. The New Zealander is a three-time Olympic medal winner and is competing in her fifth Games at the age of 40. But there’s no question in Lee’s mind about her priorities – if competing takes up too much family time, she will give it up.

Her one-month stint in Qingdao will be the first time Lee will be away from her daughters and she’s relying on her nine siblings to help husband Sam Wong Tak-sum mind the children.

Lee said she had no plans to guide her children into sporting careers.

“I’ll back them all the way whatever they pursue, just as my mother supported me when I decided to be an athlete,” Lee said. But if they want to become full-time athletes, she will remind the girls there will be inevitable comparisons with their parents, who were both elite windsurfers.

Growing up on Cheung Chau, Lee was taught the sport by her uncle when she was 12 and became a member of the Hong Kong team seven years later.

Her unexpected Olympic triumph, however, brought overwhelming stress as the community clamoured to get close to their golden girl.

“I didn’t know how to respond to the attention,” she said. “I hid away on an island for a week to avoid the spotlight and cried many times. It was the loneliest period of my life.”

Over time, she became used to being a public figure and is now delighted she can exert some social influence, especially as more parents are getting their children to take up sports because of her.

Benefits for local athletes have improved greatly following her success, but Lee reckons there’s considerable room for improvement in areas such as career transition and academic programmes for sportsmen and women.

“Many retired athletes struggle to find employment because they lack work experience,” she said. “It’s also difficult for them to go back to school because they may not meet academic requirements.”

And unlike the mainland, where top athletes may receive corporate sponsorship and advertising contracts, Lee says options are limited in Hong Kong.

She hopes to organise a children’s sports programme to promote exercise while stimulating thinking and goal-setting.

She knows how sport aided her personal growth. Through competing she learned to communicate better and improved her people skills, she said. And she discovered a need to learn more.

“I didn’t like studying when I was a teenager, but as I got to see more of the world after becoming an athlete I had the desire to acquire more knowledge,” said Lee, who went on to earn a sports management degree in Australia.

If it weren’t for sport, she would probably have become a clerk or policewoman, she said.

“But most importantly, I met my husband through my athletic career. Without him, I wouldn’t have had this lovely family.”

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