Hong Kong is having its best Olympics ever by winning two medals, offering the city’s youth a rare opportunity to celebrate their local identity following two years of political turmoil.
On Wednesday, 23-year-old star swimmer Siobhan Haughey won a silver medal in the women’s 200m freestyle. It was Hong Kong’s first Olympic swimming medal and the first time the city bagged two medals in a single Olympics.
Haughey came in second only to Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus, breaking her personal record and beating America’s Katie Ledecky. Currently a student at the University of Michigan, Haughey will also compete in the women’s 100m and 50m freestyle.
Her silver prompted a second wave of Olympic excitement across the city. Earlier this week, foil fencer Cheung Ka-long won the city’s first Olympics gold medal since 1996 after beating the last Olympics champion Daniele Garozzo of Italy.
A former British colony, Hong Kong has participated in the Olympics as its own team since 1952 and continued to compete separately from China’s team after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In recent years, young Hong Kongers have increasingly seen themselves as a community separate from people in mainland China.
Massive pro-democracy protests in 2019 fueled anti-China sentiment and expressions of local identity. The Chinese leadership cracked down on the unrest by locking up activists, banning protest slogans, shutting down a popular pro-democracy newspaper, and strengthening patriotic education in schools.
Haughey was born to a Hong Kong mother and an Irish father. Her late granduncle, Charles Haughey, was a former prime minister of Ireland.
She began learning swimming when she was four, she told the South China Morning Post. She said hated the sport at first, but started to enjoy it after meeting more swimmer friends. At the age of 16, she won a gold in the 100m freestyle at the world junior championships in 2013. She also won two silvers at the 2014 Youth Olympics.
Haughey said in 2016 that she chose to represent Hong Kong instead of Ireland because she was raised in Hong Kong and felt more connected to the city. She reached the semi-finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a first for Hong Kong female swimmers.
Since protests and other gatherings are no longer allowed, the Olympic matches gave people a chance to rally around their Hong Kong identity without fear of arrests. During the fencing and swimming finals, people gathered in front of big TV screens in shopping malls to watch live broadcasts and cheer for the young Hong Kong athletes.
But when the Chinese national anthem was played for Cheung’s win, some people in the audience booed the song and chanted “We are Hong Kong.” Once a popular protest gesture, booing the Chinese national anthem has been outlawed since June 2020.
Exiled protest leaders have also posted congratulatory messages on Hong Kong’s Olympic win. While the athletes themselves have not made any political statement, many shared Cheung’s words “don’t give up” on social media as a subtle encouragement to those frustrated by Beijing’s tightening control.
The pro-Beijing local authorities and politicians have also congratulated the medalists, albeit with a subtly different emphasis. One pro-establishment politician hailed Cheung’s fencing victory as the city’s first Olympic gold “after returning to the motherland.”
The city may have another medal coming, in badminton. Hong Kong pair Tang Chun-man and Tse Ying-suet have made it to the mixed doubles semi-finals after beating the British team on Wednesday. They will face China on Thursday.