Game on for a true team player
Given her standing as Hong Kong's top-ranked official at the London Olympics, Vivien Lau Chiang-chu could easily have opted to spend the Games staying in a five-star hotel in the British capital's bustling West End. Instead, she will be joining her 42-strong squad when she arrives in London on Thursday, checking into one of the dormitories at the athletes' village far out in the East End.
'Quite a few of my international counterparts did choose to stay in downtown hotels because they deemed life in the village as not very convenient for them,' says Lau, whose official title at the London Games is the Hong Kong delegation's chef de mission. 'But once I took this job as [the Hong Kong athletes'] team manager, I had to take care of them. If you don't live with them, you can't have hands-on knowledge about what's happening on the ground.'
Former tenpin bowler Lau says she is at ease with such arrangements because she's been through all this and seen far worse as an athlete before. She can still recall the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1978, for example: 'It was the first time Hong Kong's tenpin bowlers had competed at a large-scale multi-sports event,' she said. 'Bangkok only stepped in at the last minute to host the games [after Singapore and Islamabad dropped out] and they didn't even have an athletes' village. So there we were, the three of us, squeezing into a double room in a hotel.'
And then there's the Seoul Asiad in 1986. 'That's the first time we got to stay in an athlete's village - but some of us were surprised by the amenities and complained about not having television sets or telephones, and that we had to share a bathroom with others. I did acknowledge it was a bit different from what we were used to.'
Lau has been vice-chairwoman of Hong Kong's Sports Federation & Olympic Committee since 1996.
Having lived through an era in which athletes had scant back-up for their efforts - she can still recall buying her own books to learn how to improve her skills and her mental toughness when she first turned professional in the early 1970s - Lau is now in a position to make sure Hong Kong's athletes have access to whatever they need to perform to the best of their capabilities.
While the public might be more familiar with the medal winners and record breakers, Lau is part of a team of unsung heroes monitoring Team Hong Kong's progress during the 17-day London Games, which kicks off this Thursday.
Lau says today's athletes are 'really blessed' with what they have at their disposal. 'They've got the [Hong Kong] Sports Institute with sports management and scientists ... and they've got the funding to back them up,' she says. 'And they [can] train with the national squad all year long. Back in my days, we got selected for the team a few weeks prior to the Games and that's it, really.'
Starting in 1988, when she joined the federation to help out the organisation's academy work, Lau has helped set up various programmes dedicated to enhancing not just the athletes' present performance, but also their prospects once their sporting days are over. Since 2005, the Olympic Committee has been offering an established set of courses and seminars to enhance local athletes' academic pedigree and life skills, in order to ease their way back into society as retirement looms.
'They do need some time to readjust themselves,' Lau says. 'After all, they aren't doing nine-to-five jobs - they wake up very early to train, rest during the afternoon, and then train some more during the evening. We brought in consultants to advise them how to do a job interview - what clothes to wear, what things to say, and what kind of research they should do before.'
In contrast to some of her charges - who had dedicated most of their youthful years to their sports and nothing much else - Lau's career as a tenpin bowler began late. Raised in a very athletic family, Lau dabbled in a wide variety of sports during her teens, and played badminton for the Hong Kong team in the Triennial Intervarsity Games when she was a geography student at the University of Hong Kong.
Rather than turning professional, Lau became a secondary-school teacher when she finished her degree, and her crack at sports-related glory seemed over as she balanced her work and the raising of her two children. That was until a twisted ankle, incurred during a leisurely badminton game at the Kowloon Tong Club, brought her back into the fold when she was in her early 30s.
'The doctor said I wasn't in my 20s anymore, and I should really leave my foot to recover completely. I was fretting about not [doing] sports for a year. It was then that I thought about spending more time on bowling, which doesn't require that much jumping and running.'
Lau was selected for the Hong Kong squad in 1975 - just one year after turning her attention to the sport - and she was playing in the Asian Games just three years later, coming third in the Trios team competition alongside Catherine Che Kuk-hung and Maria Chong Nim-chu. After her appearance in Seoul - during which Che won Hong Kong's first-ever gold medal in the Asian Games - Lau stowed away her ball and her gloves just as she began running the Hong Kong Tenpin Bowling Congress, the association that oversees the development of the sport.
'We weren't doing that as a job back then - unlike some of the paid staff we have today,' Lau says. 'We were just committing ourselves because of our enthusiasm for the sport. My colleagues were saying how I didn't have a job to go to, and that my children were all grown up by then, and suggested I should go and help out. I've learnt a lot since then - in how to communicate with government departments to get more funding, and to deal with companies to get commercial sponsorship, and how to organise large-scale tournaments.'
Encouraged by the then Olympic Committee president Arnaldo de Oliveira Sales, Lau made the leap into Hong Kong's sports establishment in the late 1980s, just as she began a nine-year spell working for local amusement parade operators Whimsy (where her brief was to launch outlets overseas) and then concert-organiser Cheung Yiu-wing (who needed someone 'who could speak good English', Lau says). Her return to sports administration on a full-time basis mirrored that of her daughter Vanessa, who worked for local hotels for nearly a decade before deciding to become a full-time bowler in 1999, when she was 27.
Lau says she's now on the lookout for a younger generation of administrators who could take up her mantle at both the Tenpin Bowling Congress and the Olympic Committee. Candidates seem to be emerging, with a new generation of athletes being more vocal in fighting for their rights and the development of local sports in general - as seen in the high-profile campaign against the temporary relocation of the Sports Institute to Wu Kai Sha three years ago, and another in support of the government's bid for the Asian Games two years ago. Lau also admits hearing rumours that cycling hero Wong Kam-po will be made a sports commissioner in the new administration when he leaves the saddle.
'The younger generation has certainly spoken out more about sports,' says Lau. 'But that 'dress-in-black' campaign [about the Sports Institute's relocation] might have been a bit over the top, as the government did have its reasons back then.'
Lau says she witnessed much enthusiasm among athletes last year in running for the sports constituency on the Election Committee that picked Leung. 'Maybe someone in the future will run for the Legislative Council as well. I hope someone who actually came from the sports world can emerge and do something for sports - I've seen some people who didn't come through the ranks as an athlete, but used sports as a tool to maintain their own political careers. I think Ah Po [Wong Kam-po] could help sports if he wanted to.'
Vivien Lau Chiang-chu
Currently Chef de mission of the Hong Kong delegation to the London Olympics, vice-president of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong and chairwoman of the Hong Kong Tenpin Bowling Congress
Previously Hong Kong representative of the Hong Kong tenpin bowling team, 1975-86; bronze medallist for tenpin bowling of trios, Asian Games, Bangkok, 1978
Education A graduate in geography at the University of Hong Kong
Personal Two children. Her son is a computer engineer and her daughter, Vanessa, represented Hong Kong in tenpin bowling from 1999 to 2011