The sprinter, her struggle, and the storm raging back home
Sarah Lee's bronze medal at the Berlin Track World Championships wasn't the biggest result of the meet – but after weathering a social media outcry, the Hong Kong protests, the death of her coach and the threat of coronavirus, it was one of the most meaningful.
After a week that saw world records tumble and contenders for Olympic glory draw lines in the sand, the Berlin World Track Championships wrapped up on Sunday.
Denmark’s team pursuit efforts, Chloe Dygert’s obliteration of the women’s pursuit record and Michael Mørkøv’s journey from coronavirus quarantine to gold in the madison were the stories dominating the headlines – but on the third step of the women’s sprint podium was one of the most interesting stories of all.
Sarah Lee Wai-sze – a powerful Hong Kong sprinter – was competing in Berlin with all the hope and pressure of her trouble-wracked homeland riding on her shoulders.
Lee is Hong Kong’s most-famous athlete, and is widely considered the territory’s best hope for a medal in Tokyo. At the 2012 London Olympics, she claimed Hong Kong’s first ever cycling medal with bronze in the keirin – only its third Olympic medal, ever – making her an instant national hero. She returned home to wealth, and adoration.
That honeymoon period wouldn’t last. Lee led the Hong Kong team into Rio’s Maracaña stadium as the flagbearer, but after crashing out of the semi-finals at the Rio Olympics and bearing the weight of her city’s disappointment, Lee considered walking away from the sport altogether. “I stopped cycling for about three months to think about whether I should still stay here or just retire and help the others to develop,” she said later. Midway through that break, Lee’s horror year got worse with the sudden death of her coach.
After a long period of soul-searching, Lee decided she wasn’t done. By 2018, she’d reestablished herself as one of the stars of the sport; in 2019 she won world championships in the keirin and the sprint. Lee was spurred on by the 2018 paralyzation of her close friend, dual Olympic gold medalist Kristina Vogel, who suffered life-altering injuries in a training crash. “I don’t know what I can say, so I’m trying my best in my career, and I will salute and support her with my heart,” Lee said at the time.
But despite her remarkable success on the boards, Sarah Lee’s 2019 was instead defined by the political turmoil engulfing Hong Kong, when the national hero was plunged into a social media storm over comments that were interpreted as an endorsement of pro-democracy protesters.
In the lead-up to National Day celebrations on the 1st of October – in a week that saw the first use of live ammunition rounds by police against protesters – Lee posted a comment to her thousands of followers warning them to “be careful to avoid the rain… if you don’t bring an umbrella, be prepared to go home early”.
On a day with clear skies, this was interpreted as a thinly-veiled reference to the umbrellas used by protesters to protect themselves against water cannons and conceal their identities.
In the heavily politicised atmosphere of Hong Kong, which was being torn in two as a result of perceived Chinese interference in the semi-autonomous island, Lee’s comments sparked a furore. Pro-government netizens led calls for her sports department grants to be stripped from her. Lee quickly discovered the perils of political expression and learnt that in a time like this, in a place like Hong Kong, free speech isn’t ever really free.
The track star was forced offline for three months, suspending her social media as she weathered the storm raging around her – both online and on the streets of a city that was besieged by near-daily protests and worsening violence.
When Lee reopened her Facebook page early this year, she addressed the controversy head-on, saying that she closed the page for “a lot of different reasons. Among the biggest was that I did not want to see people abusing each other on the page, especially among Hong Kong people.
“I have to say I have been struggling for a while, fearing there may be fabrication from the media, fearing people who may use their own words to interpret my sentences, fearing speculation made by people on the internet, fearing getting involved in political turmoil, fearing it may affect the Olympic Games,” she continued. “But in the end I don’t want to abandon it. I won’t back down because of these fears.”
In the build-up to the Berlin world championships, amid looming fears of a coronavirus outbreak, the Hong Kong cycling team made a hasty escape to Switzerland to prepare, leaving key strength-training equipment behind. In Berlin, Lee grappled with an increasingly powerful and well-resourced German sprint team. She finished fourth in the keirin – a result bluntly labelled by the South China Morning Post as a “mediocre performance.” Unperturbed, Lee bounced back to score a bronze medal in the sprint, again behind a rising German star.
If it was a disappointment for Sarah Lee, she didn’t show it, smiling widely on the podium. The medal, perhaps, represented a renewed confidence in her own fortitude; hard-won inner-strength from having weathered the storm – for independence, against coronavirus – still raging over her island.
Today, Lee posted on Facebook for the first time since having been forced to flee by the virus: “I do not know when I can return to Hong Kong. I hope to go home soon.”
“We have experienced so many storms … just smile [and] bravely face the current difficulties,” she wrote.
Those were words of comfort for those back home, but they could just as easily have been words of affirmation for herself.