Slow progress on hub hurts chances to lure big events
Two things, both connected, have starkly highlighted a perceived indifference by the government to sports in the years since the territory became an SAR.
They are the proposed Kai Tak sports hub and a hoped-for bid for the 2023 Asian Games. The latter can't happen without the facilities at the former airport site, which became redundant after the handover. But 15 years have passed, and the government has still to reach the starting blocks on a project that could inject new blood into local sports.
While there have been many advances in other sectors of society, the sporting community has apparently been caught in a time warp as it still awaits government action on the sports hub, estimated to cost HK$19 billion.
The original plans include a main 50,000-seater stadium with a retractable roof plus two other main venues - a 6,000-seater secondary stadium and a 5,000-seater indoor stadium - both of which could increase capacity with temporary seating.
But almost a decade after the original study was released, the project has gone nowhere. This stagnation has proven a source of frustration for sporting chiefs, including Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, president of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee, and Trevor Gregory, chairman of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, one of the most successful bodies in town and which runs the Hong Kong Sevens.
The HKRFU is ambitiously looking at using Kai Tak to host a few games at the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup, and has been waiting anxiously for work to get under way.
'Even before the handover, the government knew the airport would be moved from Kai Tak,' gregory says. 'It is surprising it has taken until 2012 to formulate policy and reach this stage. We are not talking a few years, rather 15 years have passed by. It is very disappointing as Hong Kong is known as a place for getting things done.'
He was referring to a drawn-out process that the government launched last year whereby it appointed consultants to look into how best the multi-billion dollar project should be funded - by involving the private sector or by going it alone.
In his budget speech this year, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said 'preparatory work is under way'. But nothing concrete has happened, which will hardly reassure people that the government will stick to its promise of providing a new sports hub.
But the government claims the project is on schedule and that work will begin in 2014 with a completion date of 2018-19. The sporting community waits with bated breath.
The uncertainty over the Kai Tak sporting facilities has also proven to be a bugbear for the Hong Kong Olympic Committee, which failed to convince the Legislative Council to back a move to bid for the 2023 Asian Games. Last year, Legco voted against a motion for HK$6 billion in funding.
In February, the Olympic Council of Asia urged Hong Kong to reconsider its decision after it rescinded a move to pick the hosts for the 2019 and 2023 Games at the same time. Only the city to host the 2019 Games will be decided in November at the council's general assembly in Macau.
With more time available now to bid for the 2023 sporting showpiece - the decision will be taken in 2016 - there is renewed enthusiasm. But Fok wants a pledge from the government before throwing his weight behind a bid again.
'Everyone keeps asking if we should make another bid. Before I can do that, we need a firm commitment from the government that all the facilities will be in place by then,' Fok says.
'Once they do that, then we can discuss if we should once again bid for the Asian Games.'
The government had pledged HK$30 billion to build sporting infrastructure even before there was any thought of a 2023 Asian Games bid. This money is mainly for the sports hub at Kai Tak and to provide other new facilities, like the swimming pool complex at Victoria Park.
It also has spent HK$1.7 billion upgrading the Sports Institute at Sha Tin, keeping its promise to the institute, which gave up a sizeable chunk of land to the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The Jockey Club needed to expand its stable facilities to host the equestrian events at the 2008 Olympic Games.
A further HK$2.24 billion from the government has been earmarked to renovate and refurbish 41 existing sports facilities.
All is not lost. The government needs to come out publicly and state that the showpiece project at Kai Tak is going ahead.
'The backing for sport in the last 15 years has been disappointing to say the least. There has been no visual display of support, and that is very important,' Gregory says.
'Hopefully the new government will recognise how important sport is to Hong Kong and give sports some tangible backing. One way they could do that is to sort out the new Kai Tak facility as quickly as possible. This would make a positive statement, one much needed as we look to the future.'
Estimated cost, in HK dollars, of the sports hub at Kai Tak. The complex would include one major stadium and two smaller ones