Cut and thrust of life at the sharp end
Representing your country at the Olympics is the pinnacle for athletes, and in most developed nations they would be showered with financial and other support. That is not always the case in Hong Kong, as fencer Leung Ka-ming has discovered.
Two weeks ago in Wakayama, Japan, Leung, 23, qualified for the London Games, becoming the first fencer from Hong Kong to win a spot in the individual epee competition at an Olympics. Yet just a few years ago, Leung was forced to go cap in hand to teammates to borrow money so he could take part in training camps and competitions overseas.
Leung, though, is not bitter about the hard road he has had to travel to London. 'I beat the top two seeds in Wakayama and am one of just 30 [epee] fencers to qualify for the Games. I'm really pleased to be the first from Hong Kong to qualify for this discipline. All the hard work and sacrifices have been worthwhile,' said Leung, a second year social work student at City University.
When Leung first took up epee in secondary school, there was very little support for the discipline at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, even though fencing as a whole has been an elite programme at the Fo Tan training complex since it was set up in the late 1970s.
The only support Leung and his teammates received was for local training and competitions. But they knew that to reach the next level it was crucial to go abroad to test themselves against the rest of the world.
'It was pretty tough for us in those days, because the Sports Institute devoted more resources to the other fencing disciplines [foil and sabre]. Perhaps it was because Hong Kong had not had particularly good results in epee at international events,' Leung said.
'But we were not discouraged. We could still go abroad for competition - but at our own expense. Some members of the team had jobs, so it wasn't too bad for them. Others, like me, had to borrow the money.'
Wong Tsan, a retired fencer who won the men's individual foil gold medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Championships in Whistler, Canada, and now the vice-president of the Hong Kong Fencing Association, said his hands were tied because of limited resources. 'Fencing is a big programme at the Sports Institute and we cannot cover all the disciplines for overseas training and competitions,' he said. 'We have to give priority to those disciplines that have built a solid base over the years.
'We are not discriminating against epee; in fact, since last year epee has also received full support from us. They [the epee fencers] deserve it because they have worked so hard over so many years.'
Despite the early struggles, Leung said he had never thought of giving up the sport. 'I was lucky that my family supported me. I'm particularly grateful to my elder sister who paid some of my expenses,' he said. 'Later, when I was old enough, I also did part-time jobs and borrowed money from teammates who were better off financially so that I could train and compete overseas.'
Leung said that between 2004 and 2009 he had frequently borrowed money but that he had now paid off those debts. He refused to say how much he had borrowed during that period. 'It's not something that I want to reveal,' he said. 'But a training camp in Europe, for example, costs more than HK$10,000 and there are also other expenses like flights and hotels. But if you love the sport you have to bear the pain.'
The international exposure paid off and, in 2010, Hong Kong's four-strong epee team won a bronze medal at the Asian championships in South Korea. 'That was a turning point for the team, and especially for me. It won us the recognition we needed. I finally received financial help from the Sports Institute's Individual Athlete Support Scheme which amounted to HK$135,000.
'Last year, epee was also admitted into the elite scheme at the Sports Institute, which means we no longer have to worry about expenses.'
Leung said overcoming the early difficulties had made him a stronger person and better athlete. 'I was not among the best fencers in the qualifiers in Japan, but I did have the confidence that I could beat much stronger opponents. It's important to have that self-belief,' he said.
That self-belief is now something he wants to take into the Olympics. 'My target in London? There is obviously no pressure on me to win a medal. I'll just take it round by round and see how far I can go.'