Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am

Let's not get too full of ourselves just because the International Olympic Committee president praised the opening ceremony of the East Asian Games last Saturday. It was, after all, just that, a ceremony, while the Games are all about the athletes.

Dr Jacques Rogge was being diplomatic when he said the opening ceremony 'deserves a gold medal'. This is what we can infer from the statement issued by the government.

'It was an absolutely smashing and brilliant opening, very nice choreography, very original, creative and probably the nicest backdrop you can ever dream of,' Rogge said. 'I've seen many opening ceremonies in my long career with the Olympics. This deserves a gold medal.'

Note that there was not one mention of the word 'athletes' in the statement. So what about them? They were stuck on their own in barges out in the harbour, with no idea what was happening and with no chance to mingle with counterparts from other countries.

Rogge was simply being nice and said what an IOC president always says at an opening ceremony. Surely he wouldn't have been so churlish as to ask his hosts what had happened to the people who mattered.

But the government was quick to give itself a pat on the back and take full credit for the opening ceremony. It was a ceremony for the VIPs, with the only thing good about it being that it was short and sweet.

Today, Hong Kong's staging of its first multi-sports event comes to an end at the Hong Kong Coliseum. Let's hope the athletes are not ignored and they are truly included in the proceedings.

We bring up this issue because it seems the East Asian Games are being used by the government as a public-relations exercise, and not as a tool to help promote the sporting culture in this city.

Even the PR side of it fell flat. The most powerful man in world sport was in town, and all that the government could manage was to come out with a four-line statement from Rogge.

Why didn't they have a press conference where Rogge could have taken questions from the media? Such a meeting would have served Hong Kong well, for the international news agencies would have reported on what Rogge said and it would have been widely disseminated around the globe. The world would then have known that the East Asian Games were taking place in Hong Kong. Instead, what do we have, but a sorry, self-congratulatory missive issued by the Government Information Service of Rogge's praise for the opening ceremony.

I'm sure somewhere deep within the computers of the IOC, there must be a template file which says, 'Games - Opening Ceremony' and Rogge's PR people must have brushed this up for Hong Kong.

Forget Rogge's report. That was just for face.

It will also be prudent to take with a pinch of salt Hong Kong's fourth-place finish in the medal standings. True, this is our best performance at these Games, but you have to remember a majority of our gold medals have come from fringe sports.

Take away BMX and indoor cycling, cue sports and squash - where a total of 11 gold medals were acquired - and you get a better picture of how we truly rate.

All these sports are not in the Olympics. For example, artistic cycling is nothing more than a circus act. It was included to make up numbers after the failure to build a cycling velodrome in time for the Games led to the wholesale cancellation of all track events, a mainstream Olympic event.

We are not saying these sports should be ignored, but it would be myopic if our officials were to crack open the champagne and start celebrating the grossly exaggerated number of gold medals.

This is because in the core Olympic sports we are still way off the mark. Swimming might have performed better than expected with Hong Kong winning three silver medals, but this was mostly because Japan and South Korea left their best swimmers at home. And forget about athletics. We are still far behind.

Hong Kong is sorely lacking in these two blue-riband sports at any games. Former Hong Kong Sports Institute director Dennis Whitby says the reason for this is because we lack a system that can generate athletes.

Whitby believes 'luck is the only way local athletes have a chance of winning a medal at top sporting competitions' and mourns the lack of a systematic approach towards sport.

We can only hope these Games will open the eyes of the people who provide the funding for our elite athletes' academy, which continues to support many fringe sports but at the same time forsakes others, including team sports like soccer and rugby.

The rugby players did themselves proud when the sevens squad came close to pulling off a victory over Japan. They lost the gold medal in the dying seconds of the final, but can still hold their heads high. Unlike most other sports, all teams participating in the rugby competition fielded their best sides. It was a full-blown competitive event and Hong Kong did well.

Soccer might not have drawn the top players, but that is not the fault of Hong Kong, who last night scaled unprecedented heights. The players showed what can be achieved but to reach our potential we need the collective will from all stakeholders - clubs, the Hong Kong Football Association and the government - to lift the sport to where it belongs.

China might be an Olympic powerhouse, but soon after last year's Beijing Games, Vice-President Xi Jinping mused that the country was capable of winning gold in any sport but soccer, thus reflecting the fact that some sports are more equal than others.

So instead of basking in useless praise, it is time for Hong Kong to get its act together. Let's hope these Games will be the catalyst for change where mainstream sports are given their place in the sun.