Something's wrong when athletes have to pay to play on world stage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

Just imagine Michael Phelps being told he has to pay X amount of dollars to represent the United States at the World Swimming Championships.

The 14-time Olympic gold medallist would most probably tell the US Swimming Federation to take a running jump from the highest platform.

Sherry Tsai Hiu-wai is not Phelps. But the backstroke specialist is among the Hong Kong elite who has proudly represented her country at the highest level.

Tsai has represented Hong Kong at the Olympics, the Asian Games, and yes, the last world championships in Melbourne two years ago. But she has been told by the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) that if she wants to take part in July's world championships in Rome, she will have to pay HK$5,000 as part of the cost of her trip.

If you are shocked, don't be as this is common practice in the swimming fraternity. Tsai said it was 'discouraging' and 'completely unreasonable' for her to have to pay. This is no junket, but a top-class international sporting event. A world championship no less - only second in importance to the Olympics.

Talking about the overall state of the sport, Tsai said: 'Many swimmers are still students and they have to ask their parents to come up with the money. If they are not from well-off families, they may have a problem.

'We train very hard to qualify for events like the world championships and it is very discouraging if we have to pay our own way to represent Hong Kong.'

She is right. Hong Kong is no third-world backwater. We are not Equatorial Guinea, the country of Eric 'The Eel' Moussambani who won brief fame at the 2000 Olympics for huffing and puffing his way through the heats. Moussambani had never even seen an Olympic-size pool before arriving in Sydney.

Hong Kong is rich. We have a government that subsidises athletes for international sporting events. But apparently this is still not enough. So who is to blame? Is it the ASA?

According to Bev Wright, a long-standing and respected coach with the Mantas Swimming Club, the ASA's policy to charge swimmers has been going on for a long time, especially at age-group level.

Wright says this practice often allows more swimmers to participate in overseas events than would otherwise be possible, but admits it places a heavy burden on some families.

Luckily, most of the swimmers who come from her club are well-off, or the club has chipped in for them. Mantas has produced many Olympic swimmers, among them Alex Fong Lik-sun (2004 Olympics), Celeste Hung Cee-kay (1988), Arthur Li Kai-yien (1988, 1992, 1996), Annemarie Munk (1988), Fenella Ng Gar-loc (1984, 1988), Karen Robertson (1976), Duncan Todd (1992) and Hannah Wilson (2004, 2008).

Mantas has also produced a few who have represented other countries such as Anthony Mosse (New Zealand), Joanna Fargus (England) and Dominik Meichtry (Switzerland).

Tsai swims for Current Club, which apparently is not as well-heeled as Mantas. But that is not the point. If you are representing your country, shouldn't the governing body chip in?

The ASA says its hands are tied. With more than 8,000 registered swimmers, affiliated through the individual clubs, it cannot afford to pay for everyone who wishes to represent Hong Kong overseas.

'We cannot afford to do it. If we did it for Sherry Tsai, we will have to do it for everyone,' says Ronnie Wong Man-chiu, a senior ASA official. 'On many occasions the clubs pick up the difference.'

The difference on this occasion is the 15 per cent Tsai has to pay - HK$5,000. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department picks up 85 per cent of the tab when athletes take part in international events like a world championship or an Asian championship.

When it comes to multi-sport events, like the Olympics or the Asian Games, it is the Home Affairs Bureau which subsidises costs. It provides 90 per cent, with the Hong Kong Olympic Committee covering the remainder.

What we have is a situation where two government bodies - the HAB and the LCSD - subsidise athletes. For major games like the Olympics, the Olympic Committee chips in from its vast reserves, estimated to stand at around HK$130 million.

But for individual events like the World Swimming Championships or the World Athletics Championships, it is up to the relevant association to come up with a formula to pay the balance of 15 per cent.

Swimming is broke. While most other associations don't pass on the financial responsibility to their athletes, Wong says swimming has no choice.

We can understand this argument at age-group level, but surely a world championship deserves more respect.

Why is swimming broke? One school of thought is the ASA lost a load of money when it hosted the world short-course championships at the Hong Kong Coliseum in 1999.

Swimming was the love of former Hong Kong Olympic Committee president A. de O. Sales. He was also the president of the ASA. Sales not only built up the reserves of the Olympic Committee over the years, but also made sure the swimming association was in a healthy state financially. Apparently that is not the case now.

Wright and Wong say the lack of exposure for swimming in the media is partly to blame for the situation. 'Swimming could do with as much media coverage as possible,' says Wright.

Wong adds: 'Sadly swimming is not as popular as some other sports like football or rugby. The exposure we get in the media is limited and this prevents us from getting sponsorship.'

So we, the media, have to carry the can.

In the meantime, the government could help by lifting the draconian regulations which prevent advertising at public pools. It should also look at its subvention scheme and perhaps on a case-by-case basis support athletes, especially if they are taking part in major events like a world championship.