Simplistic assessment makes sustained success impossible

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am

It is clear the points system used to determine which sports get the support of the Hong Kong Sports Institute operates to the detriment of elite sport development. It is too simplistic and fails to recognise the differences between sports. The government's overall approach to sports development at both the elite and community levels continues to be seriously flawed and eviction of athletics and tennis from the Institute is only its most recent failure.

The elite sport evaluation system is based on the best results of two senior and two junior athletes, or teams, in a two-year period, a very short time frame to judge a sport, when it can take eight to 12 years to produce an international athlete.

The number of senior elite athletes in training at the Institute in any individual sport is small compared with other countries, increasing the risk that the retirement of just one or two athletes could mean failure to earn the required number of points in the assessment period.

While the points system works effectively to evict sports from the institute, it is just as effective at keeping sports out. The inevitable result will be a gradual reduction in the number of sports until the government can conclude it should be shut down.

If this is not the government's long-term objective, then the points system must be changed to one where the government is working constructively with the National Sports Associations (NSAs) to develop sport. Whether the government should be playing such a direct role in sport, or whether the development role should be performed by an independent agency, is another question.

Following the abolition of the Sports Development Board in 2004, the Institute has no authority to determine elite sport policy. It has become merely a delivery agent for the government. Responsibility for devising sports policy and the points system rests with the Home Affairs Bureau, but it employs no one with any experience or expertise in sport development.

To the bureaucratic mind the points system has the merit of being simple to administer and requires no subjective judgment, or understanding of sport. It takes no account of the varying nature and different competition structures of various sports and gives no recognition for development work within Hong Kong, or for long-term potential.

It means that sports that have no development programmes but win medals at the Olympics or Asian Games with imported athletes, can be immediately at an advantage over associations that concentrate on identifying and developing local athletes from scratch.

Government policies have resulted in Hong Kong underperforming at the international level and in a conspicuous lack of community participation.

Other aspects of the system are self-defeating. Coaches should not be threatened with salary cuts if their athletes do not win medals. Junior athletes should not be subjected to excessive pressure to win medals, because this results in burnout at an early age and retirement before they reach their full potential, with a consequent waste of the resources invested.

Examples of better sports systems are not hard to find. Consider, for example, that since Hong Kong first competed in the Olympic Games, Denmark, with a population of 5.4 million, has won 76 Olympic medals while Hong Kong has won just two. There are of course a number of reasons for this, but the main one lies in the Danish government's different approach to the organisation of sport.

Furthermore, 35 per cent of the Danish population belong to sports clubs, which are the internationally recognised building blocks, not only of a sports culture, but of a healthy, happy community, where children can be introduced to competitive sport and where talent can be nurtured until it reaches the level where it can compete for a place in the national team.

In Hong Kong, the community's active participation in organised, competitive sport is at a far lower level. The so-called lack of a sports culture is not the result of a lack of public interest. It is the direct result of government policies and when 50,000 people enter the Hong Kong Marathon and its associated races, something must be seriously wrong with the system for the sport of athletics to be evicted from the Institute.

A former official says they consulted the associations before coming up with the scoring system. True, and the system's defects were made clear at the time and have been re-emphasised, but as seems so often the way with such consultations, the system was adopted anyway.

The responsibilities of a governing body of sport are numerous. They include winning medals at World Championships and Asian and Olympic Games, but it also has the responsibility for promoting and developing its sport at all levels within the community, so that everyone can benefit from the health and social benefits and personal development opportunities offered by competitive sport.

Government policies need to recognise such issues and the support system should be designed to encourage and recognise sports that are successful in all the various components of this broad development approach.

It is fully agreed that success at international level must be one of the key criteria, but a weighted assessment system that also gives recognition to the development of athletes and the characteristics of individual sports will encourage a more balanced approach to development and will encourage elite athletes and coaches.

A long-term approach is needed to the planning and implementation of high-performance programmes. This means making reliable long-term commitments to athletes, professional coaches and NSAs. Such commitments must also be backed by long-term funding guarantees.

Athletes should not be expected to give up their jobs or studies without proper long-term plans. Professional coaches should not be expected to provide committed service without long-term contracts. NSAs should not be expected to support the work of the Institute without the expectation of a long-term partnership.

In assessing the performance and potential of various sports with a view to establishing such long-term relationships, a much more detailed and expert approach is needed. The 'points based' system is far too simplistic and fails to recognise the potential of long-term development programmes for future medal success.

NSAs are in a difficult position. While they are partially dependent upon government support and expected to achieve international success, the government is responsible for a variety of policies that make that goal difficult to achieve.

Robert Wilson is president of the Hong Kong, China Rowing Association