Wake-up call for Hong Kong as Dubai shows the way forward

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am

Envy might be one of the seven deadly sins, but you could pardon the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union for its covetous looks as it casts its eyes on the riches Dubai had to offer for last week's World Cup Sevens.

Having been told by the government it will have to wait until 2021 before a new sports hub will be completed at the former Kai Tak airport site - one which would include a new stadium - rugby officials could only pine for the facilities available to the 40 teams who converged on the desert arena, 70km outside the city of Dubai.

The Sevens, as it is called, might not be the most visually attractive stadium in the world. At first sight, it looks like a half-completed building site. The naked scaffolding which holds up the banks of seats is ugly. The pitch is far-removed from the fans. This is no aesthetically pleasing Bird's Nest, or even Hong Kong Stadium.

But what it makes up for in lack of grandeur is the practical nature of the complex, which includes seven top-grade pitches, all of them floodlit, and any one of which would put to shame the surface at Hong Kong Stadium.

Our pride at So Kon Po looks good on the outside. But at its core, it is rotten. The slippery surface is a nightmare for players. From the very outset, the pitch has come in for criticism. The sand-based turf has never been ideal for rugby, or for that matter football. Last November's Bledisloe Cup showed up the pitch, warts and all.

No wonder the HKRFU was salivating at the superb grass pitches at The Sevens. There, out in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, the Dubai authorities have almost overnight come up with a high-quality playing surface that came in for praise from all the teams. The conditions were fast. If this was horse racing, the going would have been rated as very good.

But this wasn't all there was to see. Apart from a solid heart, all the peripheries were state-of-the-art, which led HKRFU executive director Allan Payne to label it the 'ultimate stadium for sevens rugby'.

One of the main attractions was the 16 changing rooms available to the teams. Compare this to the paltry four at Hong Kong Stadium and you realise the disparity between the two facilities.

'Our stadium is tired,' said a wistful Payne. 'While it has served us well, it is difficult to run a major tournament with the facilities we have now.'

The Cathay Pacific/Credit Suisse Hong Kong Sevens in two weeks will once again highlight the drawbacks. All the teams, who enjoyed the very best in Dubai, will undoubtedly start comparing the two venues while they are crammed in like sardines.

During the preliminary round, you will find six teams sharing a single changing room. Put it another way, there will be almost 400 players and officials sharing four rooms.

At the end of every Sevens, the organisers get report cards from the participants, from the players to International Rugby Board officials. The changing rooms are always the bugbear for the players. 'They say everything is great about the Hong Kong Sevens apart from the changing rooms,' says Payne.

Dubai also offers the players rooms with beds and mattresses where they can snooze. The 'quiet' rooms are a hit with the players as are the video-analysis rooms and the hospitality area, where the players can eat and drink in air-conditioned comfort.

The biggest asset Dubai has over Hong Kong is space. They just don't have to worry about size restrictions. With so much real estate out there waiting to be reclaimed from the desert sands, the Gulf state has the luxury of building oversized facilities at will, unlike space-restricted Hong Kong.

But Payne said the HKRFU had plans to circumvent the space issue, and hoped the government would be amenable to its ideas to bring more comfort to the players.

'We have got a few ideas to improve conditions at Hong Kong Stadium. We will have to cope with it for the next few years until Hong Kong gets the new sports hub in Kai Tak. I'm sure these ideas will benefit other sports like football too,' Payne said.

Critics might point out there is no need for an upgrade at So Kon Po as it is only in full use once a year during the Sevens. But that is just the point: if facilities were streamlined, wouldn't it help football put on a better show?

To wait a further 12 years for a showcase stadium at Kai Tak to be built is a huge injustice, not only to rugby, but to all sports in general. The government's decision to include the sports hub in the final phase of development once again shows how little emphasis it places on sport.

We are all to blame for this lack of respect to sport. If it comes last on the priority list of the government, it doesn't even fall on the radar of the media. Just take the annual Newspaper Society Awards, which over the years has never handed out a prize to sports per se.

The media Oscars this past week heralded all the good writing and reportage for everything from news stories to business and feature writing. But it simply ignores sport. Why? Is it because sport writing is infra dig in Hong Kong? They have a category for sports news photos, with the SCMP winning a runner-up award for a photo of a Shaheen versus Valley hockey match, where you can see Hong Kong international Asghar Ali in full flow. But the written word is ignored. Perhaps a picture is worth a 1,000 words.

But this is the malaise which runs deep throughout Hong Kong in general. If sport isn't recognised by the media themselves, how can we expect the government to do the same?

Luckily, it is not the same in other parts of the world - like Dubai, which has realised sport can play a huge role in the modern-day economies of countries by fostering sports tourism. By the time Hong Kong wakes up to this idea, we will be far behind.