The making of legends

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong's medal hopes at major games are dependent on chance and not a well-oiled system that produces champions, claims Dennis Whitby, a former top official at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI).

As the fifth East Asian Games were officially opened last night, Whitby (pictured above right) said the lack of government support for a systematic elite sports development programme was the prime reason for a chronic shortage of medals at multi-sports events.

Whitby, a director at the elite sports academy from 1994 to 1998, was part of Hong Kong's only major success story when windsurfer Lee Lai-shan won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.

However, he said it was purely chance that allowed 'San San' (pictured below) to win a historic Olympic gold - Hong Kong's one and only.

'All the components that contributed towards San San's gold medal came together simply by chance and, the way things stand, it is unlikely to ever happen again,' Whitby said.

His comments came in response to a question posed by the Sunday Morning Post: Why is Hong Kong's success rate in athletics and swimming, two blue-riband sports at any major games, so poor?

Dr Trisha Leahy, Sports Institute chief executive, was also asked the same question.

At the East Asian Games, for instance, there are 86 gold medals on offer in these two events - more than one-third of the total medals - with athletics accounting for 46 and swimming 40. But Hong Kong will be lucky if they win one gold medal.

Hong Kong's swimming team manager David Chiu Chin-hung was candid in his assessment, saying he expected few medals of any colour. 'Realistically, I would say we could possibly win one medal,' Chiu said. 'The standard of swimming in Asia is high, especially from Japan, China and South Korea. It will all depend on the strength of their squads.'

Athletics, which won back its place at Sha Tin's Sports Institute only recently after being cast out after poor international performances, is expected to fare no better.

At the East Asian Games four years ago in Macau, Hong Kong won only two bronze medals on the track - the women's 4x100m relay and Wan Kin-yee in the women's 200 metres - while swimming scraped a bronze thanks to Suen Ka-yi in the women's 50m breaststroke.

Four years on, nothing seems to have improved visibly.

Top swimmer Hannah Wilson admitted she had to leave Hong Kong to get better. 'I knew if I wanted to improve I would have to train with people at a higher level. Maybe we are sticking to the old ways in Hong Kong,' said Wilson, who is studying at Berkeley University in the US and is considered Hong Kong's only medal hope in the pool.

Leahy defended the cause, saying Hong Kong was always at a disadvantage physically - especially in athletics and swimming.

'We are not as strong as the powerhouses in the world, like the US and Australia, due to the obvious physique differences,' Leahy said. 'It is always going to be a challenge for Asian countries to reach world standards.

'However, within Asia, Hong Kong is competitive in both sports - at least to the point of maintaining elite status at the Sports Institute by maintaining results at senior and junior level.'

The Sports Institute has a complex scoring system that allocates each of its 11 sports points for results achieved on the international stage. Sports that fail to get the minimum points over a period of time are barred - as happened to athletics a couple of years ago.

While Whitby feels the institute does an adequate job in supporting elite athletes, he believes the whole facade is shaky.

'The Sports Institute sits at the apex of a system that doesn't exist. Every year the government throws money at the institute and tells it to win medals. And when the athletes win medals, government officials come out and toast and congratulate each other on the athletes' success.

'But such an approach to attaining success is like going to the casino and rolling the dice. The failure of the government to put in place a systematic approach throughout Hong Kong, and not only at the HKSI, will mean we will never produce top athletes, except by chance. This is what happened in 1996 with San San.'

The four components that combined to produce Lee's Olympic gold medal, Whitby believes, were: (1) a naturally talented athlete; (2) a committed and experienced coach; (3) a supportive national sports association; (4) the HKSI's support system.

Yet that support system alone cannot ensure Hong Kong will win medals, claims Whitby, who believes the government has no concept of how to put a sports system in place.

'The government will never support elite sport because no one has the slightest idea about the benefits that can be derived from participating in elite sport, or what is involved in developing sporting excellence.

'To my knowledge, none of our government officials in charge of sports has coached athletes to the top international level, so how do they know how to get there. It is like hiring a guide to take you to the top of Mount Everest but the guide has never been there himself.'

Earlier this year, the Sports Institute, with the help of government funding, set up a priority target sports initiative that targeted four sports - badminton, cycling, table tennis and windsurfing - that have the potential to compete for medals at the 2012 London Olympics.

Leahy said the extra funding of HK$5.6 million would be invested in areas that would see athletes receive high-performance coaching and training partners, additional overseas training and competition, as well as cutting-edge equipment and innovative technology.

While this scheme is welcome, it adds weight to the theory that core sports such as athletics and swimming continue to be sidelined instead of being given additional help, especially when they offer the most number of medals at any games.

Whitby also does not believe these Games will have a lasting legacy, and claimed that the government's strategy of staging a major sports event in the name of sports development was bound to fail.

'Did the staging of the Olympic equestrian events have any effect on the level of equestrianism in Hong Kong? Do we really expect the East Asian Games to have a long-term effect on the standard of elite sport in Hong Kong? This is wishful thinking. Putting on sporting events in Hong Kong is good, but it should not be confused with elite athlete development. The two are not the same,' he added.

With a population of seven million, Whitby believes Hong Kong has the potential to produce medallists - provided there is a system to nurture them.

'Assuming that the government will never change its stance towards elite sport, our best hope is for people with a strong technical background to be given some semblance of influence in our sports associations so they can work with the Sports Institute in bringing top local athletes and top coaches together and develop in a systematic manner.

'Until this happens, we'll always have to depend on chance, and chance is not a system.'

Whitby's counsel

Set up centres of excellence in our universities and employ top coaches so our athletes and swimmers can continue to train with top coaches.

Extend degree programmes to five years or more. Everyone else does this, including China - why not Hong Kong? This will keep top athletes in the system when they go on to university.

Employ athletics and swimming coaches - not just PE staff - at our universities.

Develop Level 4 and Level 5 Coach Development Programmes for elite coaches; select good potential coaches and send them overseas for exposure.

Increase the budget for HKSI

Bring more sports into the HKSI; and why no team sports - football? rugby? hockey?

If they don't exist already, set up regional squads under the control of the national coach or HKSI head coach.

Link funding to performance and make the coaches accountable for performance, but also give them the resources to do the job.

Bring technical specialists into decision-making roles.

Aim high - just participating is not enough.

Think outside the box. The rest of the world is already there.