Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

The full-page advertisement in the SCMP last Monday hailed athletes for their 'best-ever results' at the East Asian Games and the National Games last year. More than HK$7 million was disbursed by Hang Seng Bank and the Hong Kong Sports Institute to 203 athletes from the incentive awards scheme.

Yes, there is cause for celebra-tion, but let's not go overboard. These games were very parochial and limited only to a few.

Trisha Leahy, chief executive of the Sports Institute, acknowledged this, saying the East Asian Games was one of the rungs of a ladder - a lower one at that.

She said the benchmark was always bigger events like the Asian Games, world championships and the Olympic Games. The Sports Institute looks at performances from 'a step-ladder perspective' where each rung is an interim level benchmark which has to be successfully negotiated in order to get to the next level throughout a four-year cycle.

The East Asian Games (EAG) and the National Games are one of those bottom rungs.

The 196 EAG winners came from 19 sports and were rewarded with HK$6,136,000 from the joint incentive scheme. The eight medallists from the National Games came from cycling, equestrian and triathlon and shared HK$1,050,000. The biggest winner was showjumper Patrick Lam who bagged HK$330,000 for winning the gold medal in the jumping individual event.

Veteran cyclist Wong Kam-po was the only athlete to win medals in both Games and received HK$310,000 in cash incentives. Needless to say Wong is a staunch supporter of the bank and sports institute where he has been a scholarship athlete for as long as one can remember.

'I fully support the scheme. Despite the fact that Hong Kong athletes do not necessarily compete for prize money, the cash incentive awards work as a boost to fellow athletes and as a recognition for their efforts,' he said.

He is being rather coy. The incentive scheme must surely be the biggest motivating factor for an athlete. But Wong doesn't want to sound too mercenary, even though there is no harm in going for 'gold'.

Money, is after all, the best stimulant. More so in a place like Hong Kong where parents put so much of pressure on their kids to study and find a paying career.

But the HK$7 million dished out is still pocket money compared to the fatter schemes for the Asian Games and the Olympic Games - no one has managed to collect the cool HK$1 million which windsurfer Lee Lai-shan pocketed after her groundbreaking gold medal triumph at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

These events are the higher rungs which Leahy refers to. And Hong Kong is on the home straight for one such event - November's Asian Games in Guangzhou. This will be the real litmus test of how far our elite sporting system has come.

Considering all the uncertainty surrounding their move out of Sha Tin, and the feeling of being left 'homeless', the Sports Institute has done remarkably well to remain focused on the job of churning out winners.

The government has undertaken a HK$1.8 billion redevelopment of the Sports Institute, the first phase of which is almost over - updating and renovating the training venues, fitness training centre and sports science and sports medicine areas.

'We will be moving in at the end of the month,' said Leahy, looking forward to returning to the quarters they had to leave for the Olympic equestrian event in 2008.

Work on the new facilities - including an Olympic-sized swimming pool, new indoor sports hall, a nine-storey multipurpose building including an athletes' hostel, a boathouse - will get under way this summer and is expected to be finished by late next year, or early 2012. The whole redevelopment is expected to be complete by 2013.

Leahy, who has overseen the transition for the past two years, says it has been an exciting challenge, especially in the face of Hong Kong staging its first multi-sports Games. She is thrilled that Hong Kong did so well, but admits the real test is still ahead.

Yes, China might have turned up with a few of their stars, but you cannot equate the EAG with the Asian Games. Only nine countries and territories took part in the EAG, while nearly 45 national Olympic committees will turn up in Guangzhou. The National Games in China - where the provinces compete - might have been a couple of notches more competitive, but once again, it is not the Asian Games.

We should be grateful for Hang Seng Bank for all their support for the incentive scheme, organised by the Sports Institute, since 1996. In this time HK$15,758,000 has been granted to athletes of which more than half has come from the bank.

More financial support from the private sector will encourage youngsters to take up sport, which will benefit Hong Kong. And while plucking the fruit at events like the EAG, athletes know the real prize lies on the higher branches.

'Our planning follows four-year cycles, or the Asian Games and the Olympic Games, and now we are on the home stretch, fine-tuning preparations for November's Asian Games,' says Leahy.

Let's hope the bank and the SI will have to dish out a lot more at the end of the year. That will mean we have achieved our 'best-ever results'. Until then, let's take the congratulatory advertisement with a healthy pinch of salt.


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