A sporting chance
There are no short cuts to winning medals, but the time investment needed to produce champions has been a major millstone around the necks of Hong Kong athletes, who are caught on the horns of a dilemma: sport or education?
The choice has forced many to give up their Olympic dreams.
Trisha Leahy, the top official in charge of the elite athlete training academy in Sha Tin, says unless the academic programme of athletes is bent to suit their timetable, sports will suffer.
'Studies undertaken by experts suggest that it takes around 10,000 hours of specific practice to bring a young talented athlete to international standards,' said Leahy, chief executive of the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI).
'It takes a further two to three major Games cycles - a minimum of eight years - for that athlete to maximise his or her potential. This requires an intensive commitment from an athlete of at least 15 to 20 years,' she said. 'This time frame will invariably intersect with traditional schooling years.'
Leahy is proposing that athletes be allowed to spend up to 10 years getting a high school education and another 10 years to complete university, so they can train and compete without the distraction of worrying about their academic careers.
Her proposal, put forward to the Legislative Council last month, has received cautious support from the Home Affairs Bureau and the Education Bureau, the government departments in charge of sport and education, respectively. At present, Hong Kong students must finish secondary school within seven years and most university courses in four years.
Jonathan McKinley, deputy secretary for home affairs, agreed more attention should be paid to providing a level educational field for athletes, although he noted that several schools and universities already do allow a degree of flexibility.
'I believe we will see more and more schools and tertiary institutions recognise the all-round benefits of allowing genuinely talented athletes the space to develop in their sport whilst providing the necessary academic back-up,' McKinley said.
'But to what extent this can be systematised is an issue for the Education Bureau to grapple with.'
An Education Bureau spokesman said: 'We will continue to implement the current set of programmes and consider how best to introduce new initiatives to improve the environment for sports in schools and encourage students to cultivate an interest in sport.'
Top fencer Au Sin-ying, a first-year student at Baptist University who is doing a degree in physical education and recreational management, said her dream of winning an Olympic medal would be more realistic if she had more flexibility in her academic timetable.
'In my situation, with a 10-year time frame, I would be able to train full time, and I would seriously aim for an Olympic medal,' said Au, 22, winner of a silver medal in the women's individual sabre event at last year's Asian Games in Guangzhou.
'I know many parents won't let their children devote much time to sport, because they still think academic achievement is the most important thing in a person's life,' she said. 'I feel if the HKSI can help push forward a scheme with a flexible study programme with local universities or other academic institutions, it may change the parents' thinking.'
Leahy said: 'Part of our strategic direction is to explore if and how we could have at least a senior high school service provided on site at HKSI. That would solve our problems to some extent, as we could control the flexibility of curriculum delivery.
'But we still need [Education Bureau] support to allow extended timelines for graduation to fit with elite training and competition needs.
'And the universities should, in theory, have the flexibility to create elite athlete-friendly structures and timelines for graduation. But currently there doesn't appear to be a top-down policy or guideline available, so individual athletes like Au have to depend on the goodwill and understanding of departmental staff, on a case by case basis. This creates a lot of uncertainty.
'A simple solution would be to allow all eligible elite athletes to have a graduation time frame of at least 10 years, thus allowing them to optimise their giftedness in sport without any sacrifice to their academic development and preparation for a second career after sport.'
The government has spent about HK$1.8 billion on a state-of-the-art redevelopment of the academy. And it recently assured elite athletes of long-term funding stability through a HK$7 billion fund, which would support 15 elite sports with its annual investment proceeds.
A paper on promotion of sports in schools, presented on May 13 to a Legco joint panel on home affairs and education, said there are nearly 600 student athletes at the HKSI, which is seeking among other things to develop tailor-made in-house education programmes for them. The academy is also exploring with post-secondary institutions the possibility of more flexibility for athletes.