Hong Kong's Lee tunes out critics for cycling worlds

©Agence France-Presse

Hong Kong cyclist Sarah Lee won two gold medals at last year's track world championships in Poland

Berlin (AFP) - Sarah Lee will defend her titles at this week's track cycling world championships in Berlin after overcoming a row during Hong Kong's anti-government protests that left her fearing for her Tokyo Olympics campaign.

The Hong Kong rider, who won women's keirin and sprint gold at last year's worlds, and keirin bronze at the 2012 Olympics, was caught up in a social media storm last year over comments perceived as backing the protests.

While she received plenty of support for embracing freedom of speech and speaking out for Hong Kong, Lee's remarks also prompted calls from some irate netizens for her to be banned from the sport.

The 32-year-old suspended her social media account in the wake of the controversy, but Hong Kong's Sports Institute -- where Lee trains -- declined to take action, saying "there are no grounds for saying her comments had anything to do with the protest".

Upon reopening her Facebook page three months later, Lee wrote that she had closed it 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".

She continued: "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. 

"But in the end I don't want to abandon it. I won't back down because of these fears."

Lee wrote herself into Hong Kong's history books by winning the city's first ever Olympic cycling medal -- only their third overall -- with her keirin bronze at London 2012.

Voicing political views on Hong Kong is now fraught with risk for public figures in a city that has become ideologically polarised.

Even comparatively mild comments can lead to social media pile-ons from both supporters of the democracy movement or pro-China loyalists.

Kenny double act

The Berlin Velodrome, built as part of the city's failed bid to host the 2000 Olympics, will from Wednesday welcome nearly 400 riders from 46 nations -- with India and Latvia set for their world championships debut. 

The event, held on a track rebuilt in 2017, is the final event in the Tokyo Olympic qualifying window. The ranking cut-off is on March 2.

Husband-and-wife Olympic champions Jason and Laura Kenny will be among the riders to watch.

Laura has opted against surgery on a broken shoulder in order to compete in the omnium and the double Olympic gold medallist (omnium, team pursuit), intends to defend both her titles in Tokyo.

Three-time sprint silver medallist Stephanie Morton returns as part of an Australian squad that topped the medal table alongside the Netherlands with six golds at the 2019 worlds in Poland.

Australia's former sprint champion Matthew Glaetzer, who underwent surgery and treatment in November for thyroid cancer, was a late withdrawal due to a leg injury. 

Kelland O'Brien, a gold medallist in the team pursuit for Australia in 2017 and 2019, has also been ruled out.

Germany's Roger Kluge and Theo Reinhardt will bid for a third successive triumph in the madison, which will be reinstated to the Olympic programme in Tokyo.

Dutch two-time defending women's omnium champion Kirsten Wild, 37, is again the favourite in the multi-race event, while Russian duo Daria Shmeleva and Anastasia Voinova will look to regain the women's team sprint title they last won in 2017.

Nicholas Paul of Trinidad and Tobago set a 200m world record at the Pan American Games and is on the cusp of booking his Olympic spot.

Elia Viviani, the 2016 Olympic men's omnium champion, is taking a brief hiatus from road racing with Cofidis to ride for the Italy team.