It was supposed to be a celebratory occasion signalling the return of mass sporting events to a city that, thanks to Covid-19, has been banned from gathering in groups larger than four for much of the last 18 months. Instead, the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, held on Sunday for the first time since February 17, 2019, became yet another absurd showcase for the long arm of the national security law.

Photo: CitizenNews.

Participants and spectators had been warned not to politicise the race, but in the end it was the organisers who put the ugly stamp of politics on the event, redefining the multipurpose, energising Cantonese expression “Add oil!” as a possible criminal offence.

Several runners told local news outlets that they were required to remove or cover up clothing or tattoos that featured the popular phrase lest they be banned from the race.

One runner told Citizen News that she failed a security check because she was wearing what police deemed a “political outfit” — running shorts that had “Hong Kong, Add Oil!” printed on them. She was ordered to change her shorts in a nearby booth.

HK01 reported that another runner with the same phrase tattooed on his leg was supplied with a bandage to cover it up. Another participant complained to HK01 that police demanded he remove his shirt, which also carried the allegedly incendiary phrase. He wound up running the race in a blazer!

Organisers stopped one particularly unfortunate woman from running because of a simple “Hong Kong” logo on her shorts — with no “Add Oil!” addendum. Her offence: The font of the logo was suspiciously similar to that adopted by anti-government protesters in 2019, when shouts of “Hong Kong, Add Oil!” became a common rallying cry.

Okay, we understand. Those long months of sometimes virulent protests turned the city upside down and, in the eyes of the world, were a humiliating spectacle for both the Hong Kong government and the powers that be in Beijing. That’s why the Chinese leadership forced such a draconian national security law down our throats in June of 2020, instantly destroying any meaningful opposition to kow-towing Hong Kong officials or their puppet masters in Beijing.

Photo: Citizen News.

But surely even the pro-Beijing politicos left standing after the imposition of that suffocating law can agree that organisers and police were guilty of vast overreach during Sunday’s marathon. 

Yes, “Add Oil!” was co-opted by anti-government protesters to amp up their cause. But it also might be bellowed by enthusiastic fans at a football match. A parent might offer those encouraging words to a child before an exam or any other challenging task. If you’ve had a bad day, week or year, this buoyant idiom coming from a friend, relative or colleague is the equivalent of “Hang in there!” or “Keep trying!” in English. 

Indeed, so widespread and popular is the phrase that it is hard to think of many contexts in which it could not be heard. Are we going to ban all of them?

Photo: Carrie Lam via Facebook.

Of course not. So why turn the Hong Kong Marathon into a national security litmus test based on the flimsiest of connections between the attire chosen by some of its participants and past anti-government protests.

It’s embarrassing, really—perhaps the most risible evidence to date of how thin-skinned and paranoid Hong Kong officials have become. 

Nevertheless, congratulations to the winners of Sunday’s races, although due to Covid restrictions the event was just a shadow of its previous self. Only some 18,500 runners—and no elite foreign athletes—took part. That compares with 74,000 entries in 2019, including internationally renowned marathoners such as Kenya’s Barnabas Kiptum, who won that year’s men’s race, setting a course record of 2:09:21, more than 21 minutes faster that Sunday’s winner, Wong Kai-lok, who finished at 2:31:10.

Photo: Nasha Chan/Stand News.

Finally, Sunday was rare good day for Hong Kong journalists, many of whom have been self-censoring themselves into oblivion as of late. 

At Sunday’s post-marathon press conference, hosted by the flustered chairman of the race’s organising committee, William Ko Wai-lam, reporters refused to stop asking sceptical questions about the so-called “political” attire donned by some runners. 

At one point, with Ko struggling to explain what is political about the words “Add Oil!” and “Hong Kong,” a public relations official stepped in to insist that the line of questioning change. 
But when reporters stubbornly persisted, the non-plussed organisers’ final response was to shut down the presser altogether, essentially admitting defeat. 

So Hong Kong journalists were also winners on Sunday. 


HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.