Nowhere to run
Freshly crowned as one of Hong Kong's sporting superstars, table tennis doubles champion Ko Lai-chak should be basking in the glory of hard-won victory. The Asian Games gold medallist last month returned triumphantly from the Doha competition where he had proved his mettle against the best the region had to offer.
Yet the glow of success seems to be diminishing for the champion, a silver medallist at the Athens Olympics. Like many of his peers, Ko is facing the grim reality of a demanding training schedule without the use of the Sports Institute facilities in Sha Tin.
While Hong Kong is heralding its pivotal role in hosting the equestrian events of the 2008 Olympics, the closure of Sha Tin's training and accommodation facility for a two-year overhaul before the Games has sparked alarm among the city's elite athletes, as well as drawing criticism from local residents and schools in the area.
Thousands are affected by the decision to host the equestrian events in Hong Kong. Deep in preparation for the two-week Olympics, about 600 sportsmen have lost their one-house-for-all training ground. At least 2,000 local residents have lost their place for recreational sports, and thousands of students from at least 100 schools in the Sha Tin area will have less chance to exercise and train.
From this week, Ko and 600 athletes will be based at a temporary site at the Chinese YMCA Wu Kai Sha youth village in Ma On Shan.
The new quarters are spartan compared with their traditional home. Apart from a fencing hall, several tennis and basketball courts, there are no other facilities, not even for focus sports such as badminton, table tennis and squash. The shift means athletes will have to travel daily to various parts of Hong Kong for training.
Ko and his men's double champion partner, Li Ching, will be bussed to a public table tennis venue at Tai Po for training. At lunch, they will be sent back to the camp for meals, and an hour or so later they will return to Tai Po.
'No other countries would train elite athletes like this. It certainly will affect our chance of getting gold medals [in international games],' Ko said.
His partner was equally critical of the government's plan to host the equestrian events at the expense of other athletes' development.
'We want to stay in the institute. I feel sad that we have to move so far away,' Li said.
The closure of the Sha Tin centre came to prominence 18 months ago when athletes complained about the lack of consultation by confronting Home Affairs Secretary Ho Chi-ping, who masterminded the plan.
But the issue soon slipped off the radar, until November last year when reports emerged that nearly 100 trees had been cut down by the Hong Kong Jockey Club at Sha Tin to accommodate the equestrian events and at the youth village in Ma On Shan to make room, critics allege, for the new facilities needed for athletes.
John Ridley, the head of racing operations for the Jockey Club, which is the Olympic event venue provider and recommended the site to the Home Affairs Bureau, said the institute at Sha Tin was the only practical choice because it was near the race course, which could help provide facilities for the competition.
Mr Ridley would not comment on the effect of the Olympics work on athletes and residents, saying the upheaval was more of 'a government issue'. He insisted it was too costly and late to build a new venue at another site.
'We started this project a year too late. We have to use existing sites to do it. Time didn't allow us to use green field sites and it is far too expensive,' he said. 'It has to be near the Jockey Club or it doesn't work. We need trucks to move horses and training facilities and a horse hospital.'
Some critics say the club, which is committed to paying HK$800 million for construction work, chose the site because it wants to get the land for additional stabling so that it can host more races.
In July last year the then Jockey Club chairman Ronald Arculli admitted the club was hoping to keep the stabling complex after the event, saying they wanted to make good use of the facility after the Olympics.
Residents are also feeling the effects of the closure. In October, at least 2,000 members, who are mostly locals, were informed in letters from the Sports Institute that their memberships wouldn't be renewed.
From early last month, they were barred from using the facilities, including a running track, football pitches and an indoor swimming pool. The institute banned 900 adult swimmers from using the pool and only backed down after an uproar.
Xiao Jin used to go there with her children on Sundays. 'Now I don't know where I will bring them,' said Ms Xiao, whose daughter studies at Sha Tin College and used to play sports at the institute.
Primary and secondary schools from Sha Tin, Fo Tan and Tai Wai used to rely on the site for seasonal sporting events, and regular training in tennis, track and field, badminton and football.
Benny Chan, a teacher at Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School, who coached the school's football teams, said the students were struggling after being told in September that the site's pitches were not available.
The area had five football pitches for 50 secondary and 60 primary schools, making it difficult for him and other teachers to book facilities elsewhere, he said.
'Now my students have to travel as far as Fanling and Tai Po to use public pitches. We also have to borrow the Education Institute's pitches,' Mr Chan said. 'Many other schools don't care and students are not getting exercise.'
With their fate sealed, the school's principal, Cheng Cho-chak, doesn't know what to do next.
'There will be no sports for students for two years. The government hasn't thought of the impact of hosting equestrian games on local people and athletes,' he said.
The impact of relocating athletes to the YMCA camp is being felt by schools, churches and youth groups. They said the camp site, the biggest in Hong Kong and filled with greenery, was the most popular with church camp-goers.
'It is the only camp site that has over 1,000 places, while most other sites have just 200 places,' said one church camp organiser, Cathy Gibbins.
'But after half of the camp's dormitories were transferred to the institute athletes, only 500 places are available to outsiders.
'The camp was necessary for a lot of schools and church groups. I found it unfortunate. People are being sacrificed. They should find somewhere else for the sports institute.'
Chinese YMCA general secretary Lawrence Yick Kar-lim rejected claims that it had accepted the institute's athletes for financial reasons, despite estimates it would receive at least HK$16 million a year for renting out more than half of its facilities. 'We just want to do something for Hong Kong,' he said.
Amid the upheaval, last November's savage tree pruning by the Wu Kai Sha site's managers annoyed local residents even more.
About 50 trees covering an area the size of 20 basketball courts were severely cut back, including some at least 50 years old, leaving only the trunks.
Liao Kok-che, who manages the YMCA camp, denied that the move was to accommodate the institute's athletes, saying it was a routine annual trimming and, therefore, did not need tree-felling approval under the law.
Wu Kai Sha resident and green activist Jean Hung King-ming said the bare trunks were a sad sight to view from her windows. She said the pruning destroyed a piece of Hong Kong heritage in a place where many locals spent their childhood.
'Hong Kong has sacrificed so many trees and two sporting venues for two years, just for the horse competition which will last two weeks. We need quality of life and a green environment,' Ms Hung said.
'I feel sad and surprised. What is wrong with the decision-making system of our government? You can't imagine any city in the world would take away the sports facilities from their children to support one event, one sport which is totally foreign to the local people.'
Economics professor Tsui Kai-yuen of the Chinese University added his voice to the criticism of the government.
'Not many visitors are expected for the [equestrian] event, but the government has disrupted children and people's lives,' Professor Tsui said. 'The costs are too high and not worth it.'
Chung Pak-kwong, chief executive of the Sports Institute, said people should be prepared to make sacrifices as the Olympics would boost Hong Kong's profile and sporting culture.
Ex-government official Lam Woon-kwong, who is chief executive of the Equestrian Company, the body organising the events, was unavailable for comment.