The Field Hockey Team from Hong Kong: A Little Luck and a Lot of Hard Work Got Them to the Tokyo Olympics

Kader Rahman and Sarinder Dillon
Kader Rahman, Sarinder Dillon at Indian Recreation Club in Hong Kong

They were the lowest seeded team, and had already lost their first three matches to Malaysia, Belgium and Canada. Their fourth match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was against India, a global field hockey powerhouse and a favorite to win gold.

But somehow, Hong Kong – a team of part-time players, primarily bankers who stayed fit in amateur clubs – held India scoreless in the first half of play. That would be akin to Team USA basketball team being tied 20-20 at the half in an Olympic first rounder against Team Haiti, for example. In the half-time huddle, the India coaches and players must have been scratching their heads wondering why they weren’t trouncing Hong Kong.

In the second half, Honk Kong had lost two of their regular defenders to injuries, and eventual gold medalist India went on to score six unanswered goals to indeed trounce Hong Kong, a team that would go 0-6-1 and place 15th of 15 teams in Tokyo.

But that was OK. After all, the players from Hong Kong were in one sense, lucky to be in Tokyo at all. Sarinder Dillon was left half on that Hong Kong field hockey team, and recalled in late 1963 that there was an outside chance Hong Kong could make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics, so they had better be ready just in case.

Hong Kong was outside the top 16 before the Olympics. But we were told that there was a good chance that one of two teams might drop out, so the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association told us that training would start in January and that we should turn out. We thought, “this is a golden opportunity.” Hopefully a team or two would drop out, so we had to get fully fit and develop as players.

In the subsequent months, the field hockey teams from France and Poland would drop from the list, allowing Hong Kong’s field hockey team to qualify. Now it was up to the players. “We were 17 players, almost all of us bankers,” Kader Rahman, who played right half, told me.

I worked for Bank of America, others Hong Kong Bank, for example. And in those days, bankers played field hockey in amateur leagues. But when we realized that we had a chance at the Olympics, we worked at our offices from 9 am to 5pm, then took a bus to King’s Park and played a match every night. On Sundays, we played two matches. It was tough training for ten months, and most of the time, we still had not qualified.

Eventually, the Hong Kong Hockey Association selected 30 players from the various clubs for special training, eventually whittling down the team to 17 – all from different clubs. Due to the international nature of Hong Kong at the time, it was a very multi-cultural team with 7 Portuguese, 3 Indians, 2 Pakistanis, 3 Malays, and an Irishman and a Scot – all Hong Kong permanent residents. “When we walked around the Olympic Village with Hong Kong on the back of our jackets, other athletes were amazed at our team make up,” said Dillon. “We had no Chinese on the team as the few who played in Hong Kong were from the lower divisions. We all spoke English, but would sometimes talk to each other in Chinese. This further amazed the other athletes.”

In addition to the training on top of their day jobs, the members of the field hockey team were tasked with raising funds themselves. The head of the Hong Kong Hockey Association, who doubled as the Olympic squad’s team manager, went to many companies appealing for contributions. In the end, each team member was still required to put up a thousand Hong Kong dollars each of their own money to help pay for airfare, as well as the required fee for board and lodging in the Olympic Village.

Since Dillon was a student, he was asked to pay only 130 Hong Kong dollars, which his school kindly covered. But Dillon could not escape other duties required. In early September, weeks prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympic torch made its way through Asia, coming to Hong Kong via Manila. As Dillon was the youngest HK Olympian, he drew the short straw and got assigned midnight guard duty of the Olympic torch, to ensure its safety before it took off for Taipei the next day.

Hong Kong Field Hockey Team_1964
The Hong Kong Field Hockey Team of 1964; Sarinder Dillon seated on the ground lower left, Kader Rahman standing far right

Like the torch, the Hong Kong team made it to Tokyo, enjoying the awesomeness of a global event decades before television and the internet could bring instantaneous news and images to our homes and hands. Sarinder recalls his amazement at seeing his field hockey heroes from India and Pakistan in the Olympic Village, and naiveté at thinking that the song he repeatedly heard was the Olympic theme, only to learn it was the American national anthem.

But feelings of awe and wonder were often muffled by the reality of the Games. From October 11 to 18, Hong Kong lost their first 6 matches scoring only 2 goals to the oppositions’ 25. Their final match was against Germany, a team made up of East Germans that would eventually place 5th in the Olympic tournament. The German team and fans in the stands were expecting a rout, a shut out, based on Hong Kong’s previous matches.

Hong Kong did not comply. They scored a goal in the first half to lead the mighty Germans 1-0. In fact, they led the Germans throughout the match. With minutes to go, the players on the Hong Kong team could taste victory, a moment all underdogs dream of – a chance to shine on the biggest stage of them all.

“We were playing a blinder, out of our usual selves,” said Rahman. But then, Hong Kong, with a mere two minutes to go, was assessed a penalty resulting in a short corner chance for Germany. And when the ball flew through the air towards the line of Hong Kong players, it somehow hit the shoulder of one of the defenders and deflected into the goal. When the final whistle blew, it was Germany 1 – Hong Kong 1.

And that was the last time a team from Hong Kong, of any sport, participated in the Olympics. “Our team was 100% amateur compared to other countries in 1964 we played,” reflected Rahman. “Our results were not great, but we enjoyed our time. And today, our hockey team remains the only team from Hong Kong to go to the Olympics.”