Now we have a fighting chance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am


Hayley Chan Hei-man could well be thankful on two counts that she took the brave decision to put her studies on hold for a year so she could focus on winning a berth in windsurfing at the London Olympics. The faculty of arts student at Hong Kong University saw her decision vindicated when she was chosen to represent Hong Kong. It couldn't have come at a more timely moment for Chan, with the controversial revelation this week that windsurfing would be replaced by kiteboarding at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The 21-year-old must be thanking her lucky stars she decided to take that sabbatical. If she had put her studies first, Chan could have been forever robbed of her dream of taking part in the Olympics. Instead, she made a tough decision, and her sacrifice has paid off as she takes part for her first - and likely only - time in the world's biggest sporting jamboree.

This sacrifice is something Trisha Leahy at the Hong Kong Sports Institute hopes will soon become a thing of the past. The chief executive of Hong Kong's elite training academy believes talented athletes shouldn't be put in the position of choosing between a love for sports and the chance of a career based on a successful education. Leahy and the Sports Institute have now set in a motion a process that will mean athletes can soon have flexibility in their high school and tertiary education. It is at this stage, between the years of 17 and 24, that athletes are at their peak.

This is one of the new initiatives being pushed by the Sports Institute, which this year received an additional bonanza of HK$68 million from the government. Last year, the subvention from the government amounted to HK$212 million. This year, the institute has received HK$280 million.

This is thanks to the HK$7 billion Elite Athletes Development Fund established by the government last July. The plan in the future is to use the return on investment from it to bankroll the Sports Institute. It has been conservatively estimated that the annual dividends could amount to more than HK$300 million.

So at one go, the Sports Institute stands to have almost an extra HK$100 million based on last year's funding from the government. That's in the future, though, as the investments are yet to start trickling in. This year's HK$280 million was met from the capital fund.

We have been critical of the government on various issues, from its reluctance to back a 2023 Asian Games bid to dragging is feet on the Kai Tak sports hub. But the government deserves a bouquet for having the foresight to put in place a system that guarantees long-term funding for Hong Kong's top academy charged with churning out medal winners.

And rightly, the Sports Institute has raised its goals, having stated it should be judged on success at the Olympics. At Asian level, Hong Kong is already achieving. At the last Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010, Hong Kong returned with a record haul of 40 medals, including eight golds. So the bar has been raised.

While this summer's London Olympics might just be a preliminary test, from 2016 onwards all elite sports will have to produce results and will be mainly judged on that. There are 15 elite sports but a few of them, like squash and snooker (billiard sports), are not in the Olympics. As Hong Kong sport progresses, we can see a time where a sport needs to be in the Olympics before it can be eligible for elite status.

It will be an Olympic medal that will truly measure a sport's success. Hong Kong only has two such medals - Lee Lai-shan's gold in windsurfing (1996) and the silver (2004) won by Ko Lai-chak and Li Ching in men's doubles in table tennis. We need more, to justify all this money being poured in.

Fortunately, the Sports Institute has identified the key areas that need to be addressed as we go in pursuit of glory - streamlining the education system so as to give athletes more leeway and increasing the number of full-time athletes.

There are 175 full-time athletes across the 15 elite sports, but Leahy believes this number should be increased to 500, perhaps in the next five years or so, if Hong Kong is to make a bold advance, as the more athletes training full-time, the better the chances of an Olympic medal.

And more money also means an enhanced service at the Sports Institute - from high-performance coaching to sports science and medicine. Bigger and better, that should be the Sports Institute's new slogan as it looks ahead to a bright future.