Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 2011, 12:00am

There was plenty of back-slapping at last Monday's Hong Kong Sports Star Awards night as both government officials and senior members of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee indulged in celebrating a successful year for sport.

Undoubtedly the record haul of 40 medals, including eight gold, at the Asian Games last November was reason enough for the festivities. But should Hong Kong's sporting community be celebrating?

It would have been more apt if the awards night, which also doubles up as the annual spring dinner of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee, was viewed as a wake following the demise of plans to bid for the 2023 Asian Games.

Tsang Tak-sing, the secretary for home affairs, said in his speech that 'it was a wonderful year for Hong Kong', referring to the Asian Games medal glut. He quietly ignored the kick in the teeth to the sporting community from our legislators, who voted against providing funds for the 2023 Games bid.

The facile excuse was that the government should prove that it is serious about sport and put in place a sporting culture. But what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wouldn't an Asian Games in 2023 have gone a long way to creating this sports culture our legislators said was lacking and used as an excuse for denying the HK$6 billion needed for the Games? We won't know the answer now.

Yet the onus is on the government to carry on. And they did that in some style when the financial secretary announced in his budget speech on Wednesday that HK$7 billion would be set aside to create an Elite Athletes Development Fund.

This fund will replace the annual government subvention to the Sports Institute that last year amounted to HK$200 million. The annual investment returns from the HK$7 billion kitty, if conservatively estimated, will amount to around HK$300 million.

Whether this HK$7 billion boost would have been given had Hong Kong had got approval to bid for the 2023 Asian Games is moot. What matters is that the government has the money, and in this case, has put it to good use.

The budget revealed the government had a surplus of HK$71 billion. It will add much of this to the public reserves, which currently stand at HK$1.2 trillion. Like a miser hoarding his cash, the government will carefully tuck this away for the proverbial rainy day.

With all this cash, it was a shame that the legislators didn't see fit to pass the vote for the 2023 bid, especially with the government keen to bring the Games to town.

They said the money which would be spent on the Games could be better put to use on the needy, on health costs, on other public spending, on more hand-outs for the poor, on narrowing the wealth gap - on anything but an Asian Games which would have created the desired sports culture as well as brought a buzz to this city.

So while the rest of Asia hosts major sporting events, Hong Kong will continue to be a backwater. It will be up to the athletes to pull Hong Kong into the real sporting world. They will have to achieve this by going abroad (since the chance to compete in front of their home crowds has been denied them) and winning medals.

In Asia, Hong Kong is a force to be reckoned with as evidenced by the city's results in Guangzhou. But we have to take a step up and start performing on the Olympic and world stage.

Hong Kong has so far produced very few athletes who could hold their own on the Olympic or world stage. We can count them on one hand. Windsurfer Lee Lai-shan and cyclist Wong Kam-po are the two who immediately spring to mind.

Wong, who turns 38 in a few days, won the top individual Sports Star Award on Monday. He was lauded for his third Asian Games cycling gold in the road race.

While accepting the award - the third time he had done it - Wong said it might be the last time. Don't count him out. His target is to qualify for next year's London Olympics. It will be a tougher stage, but if he gets there and finishes as the top Asian rider in the road race, it would still be a magnificent achievement.

Wong has led the way. But it is time for younger athletes to follow suit. They will be afforded the luxury of doing so with the extra money available at the elite academy.

It is up to this new generation of athletes to take Hong Kong to the next level - the world and Olympic level. What athletes like San San and Wong have done is to create awareness with their sporting feats. Sadly, this awareness wasn't quite enough to persuade some people that an Asian Games in Hong Kong would be a huge boon to the continued development of sport here.

Perhaps the younger generation can achieve what Wong and company failed to do - convince the naysayers that sport is serious business.

London might come too early, but if Wong's successor does take the cycling gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics five years from now, or if a badminton ace or a gymnast should win, then it could be the proof needed to show everyone that sport does play a big role in Hong Kong life.