More sport for children would help HK compete

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2009, 12:00am

Staging events such as the East Asian Games and last year's Olympic equestrian events raises the profile of sport in Hong Kong - for a time. If medals were awarded for excellence in organisation, Hong Kong would surely be a top contender. Despite the public investment, however, there is little evidence that hosting major events does anything for the development of sport, let alone world-class athletes.

There is also little to show, in terms of medals, for the government's funding of the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI). A former top official of the institute has said that without a coherent city-wide programme of support for elite sports development, throwing money at the HKSI in the hope of winning medals is putting trust in luck to turn talented athletes into medal winners.

The frustration of sports officials is understandable. But the problem runs deeper than lack of adequate support. Hong Kong is not, after all, a recreation-minded place where children run free, hit, kick and throw balls around and learn to swim well when very young; local parents lament the lack of space, facilities and opportunities for them to do it. On the contrary, a recent Sports Commission study found that fewer than half of more than 5,000 people surveyed met the minimum requirement of half an hour's vigorous or even moderate exercise three times a week. Children are more likely to be seen outdoors only in transit between home, school and extra tuition, and parents are more likely to lament any leisure activity as a distraction from total concentration on study. They do not allow their children enough time for play to test the limitations on space and opportunity.

So the next generation seems likely to have just as poor a work-life balance as their parents. That offers little scope for spotting and developing elite sporting talent. HKSI executive director Tricia Leahy says local athletes are already at a physical disadvantage against the likes of the US and Australia, especially in athletics and swimming. There is not much to be done about that, but our youngsters are missing out on a bit more than height. Their all-work-and-no-play lifestyle robs them of an important developmental factor. Outdoor leisure activity and games promote hand-foot-eye co-ordination and interpersonal and team skills, not to mention fitness and healthy physical development. Athletic talent rises to the top more readily.

Parents may believe they are right to be overprotective by putting work before play so their children have a better chance of a successful career. But their children lead lives vastly different from their own active, if poorer childhoods. If they do get any time to themselves it is often spent in front of a computer. Increased affluence has also led to richer diets which, along with the lack of exercise, has been blamed for the increasing incidence of childhood obesity. This cannot be good for their personal development.

There are, therefore, more important reasons than our sporting reputation for reflecting on the work-life balance our children are forced to accept. The value of sport and recreation in building healthy communities is well recognised. Children should be more involved in such activities, both at home and at school, and at a younger age.

The government says improving people's quality of life is a priority. We also hear much about the need to maintain the city's competitiveness. The two are not incompatible. Indeed, a healthier work-life balance could sharpen the competitiveness of the next generation.