Shape up or ship out - blame the officials and not the sport

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am

A few kids who went chop-chop, plus one man waving his cue like a wand, has put two unlikely sports, karate and snooker, in the frame for elite status at the Hong Kong Sports Institute starting next April.

The unassuming and clean-cut Marco Fu Ka-chun, Hong Kong's top professional, has transformed the image of snooker in this city from seedy to stardust, and been mainly instrumental in lifting the stocks of the Hong Kong Billiards and Snooker Control Council.

Along with juniors Yip On-yi and Hon Hoi-cheung, Fu has achieved enough to warrant snooker coming out of some dark and dingy commercial building and hopefully into luxurious quarters when the new Sports Institute is opened in Fo Tan sometime in 2010.

The karate kids include Tung Yee-kin, Cheng Tsz-man and Lee Ka-wai, who all won medals at this summer's Asian Junior and Cadet Karate Championships in Kota Kinabalu.

They chopped their way to a silver and two bronze medals, and this, coupled with medal performances from Hong Kong's seniors in 2007 also at an Asian Championship, has resulted in karate reaching the magic number of nine - the qualifying mark needed for a sport to be included in the institute's elite programme.

Good for them. But is this the way we should go?

Here we have two sports - both hardly mainstream when you look at the bigger picture - becoming qualified for elite status while on the other hand a sport like swimming - a blue-riband sport internationally, and at the Olympics - is on the verge of being knocked out as they have failed to reach the required benchmark.

What sort of an elite academy is the institute if it closes its doors to those sports which are universally acclaimed as being the showpiece events at the Olympics or Asian Games. Athletics is already barred from the institute - since 2007 - and with swimming on the way out, Hong Kong's premier institute for elite athletes will be a joke academy.

When ready, the new facilities at the institute will boast of an Olympic-size and quality swimming pool. What's the point of having all the hardware if there is no-one to use it?

The system used for evaluating sport is too unwieldy, complicated and downright absurd. We have said it before, and will say it again, you cannot compare apples and oranges. You cannot compare snooker with tennis, or karate with swimming. But that is what the Elite Sports Commission is doing. Having one yardstick to measure all sports is unjust and unfair.

While not taking anything away from the performance of up-and-coming snooker teenager Hon Hoi-cheung, we wonder how his second-place finish in a nine-ball tournament in China can be equated to a tennis junior failing to reach the finals of an Asian Championship. How can you compare these two? Tennis, by the way, also has no elite status.

How can Cheng Tsz-man's bronze medal effort in the junior male individual kata at the Asian Junior Championship get points for karate, while Hannah Wilson finishing a commendable 26th - out of 48 - in the women's 100 metres freestyle at the Beijing Olympics didn't earn any? Surely the Olympics is a far bigger stage?

We are not belittling karate and snooker. Both sports are popular. Karate has 119 dojos (clubs) dotted around the city with a total membership of more than 2,000. They have 66 athletes in the national squad, both seniors and juniors.

Snooker has around 50 cueists in their national pool and 80-odd clubs. The governing body for the sport was vague about the total numbers playing the game, but hey, everyone can pot balls into holes. It is a great social game, one where you try desperately to look as cool as Paul Newman in The Colour of Money but somehow always fail miserably.

It is great if snooker and karate are funded by the government - a fait accompli once they become elite sports.

But the system has to change. It is better to have a band of core sports, including all the blue-riband sports like athletics and swimming - and not forgetting team sports like football and basketball, which are also institute outcasts - all of which are funded annually.

Scrap the contentious evaluation scheme in place. The national sports associations hate it.

A better way to evaluate the sports is to set each a realistic and individual target, instead of measuring them with the same yardstick. If they fail to reach these individual targets, hold the coaches responsible.

Don't punish the sport by kicking it out of the institute, but penalise the people who are responsible for getting the job done - the coaches, officials, administrators. Sports which rely on homegrown talent should be treated differently to those which bring in mainland or foreign talent. The bar must be raised for the latter.

Instead of passing judgment every two years, there should be a minimum eight-year cycle. If the sports can't show any worthy result after eight years, then perhaps they should be replaced with another.

It is estimated the cost of one gold medal for Britain at the Beijing Olympics was in the region of HK$142 million. The cost per medal, regardless of colour, was estimated at HK$58 million.

Hong Kong sport does not have this type of money. Last year, all 11 elite sports received government funding amounting to around HK$130 million.

But there is hope. Plans are afoot by the government to pump in more money to a number of elite sports which have realistic medal chances at the 2012 Olympics. We can guess these sports are table tennis, badminton and possibly cycling and windsurfing. They will become the super-elite sports.

But let's start afresh with a core of around 15 elite sports, including all the major showpiece sports.

The motto of my alma mater in Colombo was disce aut discede which translates into 'learn or depart'. I don't know what the Latin equivalent of perform is, but if a sports doesn't perform, then it should be those responsible for steering the ship who should discede. Not the sport.