Hats off to swim race organisers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2011, 12:00am


The perseverance of Ronnie Wong Man-chiu and the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association has paid off with the return of the cross-harbour race on October 16. Wong, the hardworking and genial secretary of the association, saw years of dedicated attempts to bring back an iconic local event bear fruit when the government gave the green light this week for a race from Lei Yue Mun to Quarry Bay Park.

It's taken 33 years. That's too long a break for what will undoubtedly become a high-profile event. For me, coming as I do from Sri Lanka, the number 33 has special significance. The country of my birth fought a war, recently ended, for 33 years. The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had as their flag a roaring Tiger garlanded by 33 bullets. The story goes that deceased Tigers supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran had promised to carve out a separate state in Sri Lanka in 33 years. In May 2009, 33 years after his struggle started, he was killed on a beach in north-eastern Sri Lanka. Coincidence or what?

Man proposes, God disposes, they say. Thankfully in this instance, our higher authority, the Hong Kong government, was in tune with the sentiments of Wong and the swimming association.

Credit to all the various departments - the Marine Department, the Environmental Protection Department, police et al - for pulling together in the bid to bring back the famous race.

This newspaper has black-and-white photos in the archives of the swim in the days when the race was held between Tsim Sha Tsui pier and Queen's Pier in Central. One such memorable shot is of people jumping off the pier at the start of the race.

The first cross-harbour race was held in 1906 and the last in 1978, after which poor water quality forced the race to be cancelled. Today, apparently, the quality of the water is better.

Tests have proved that on a good day, the water is not much worse than that at any one of our beaches. The Environmental Protection Department says bacteria levels, as indicated by the number of E coli units measured at one of the monitoring sites near the race route, ranged between 180 and 4,400 units last year. The bacteria standard for a bathing beach is now set at 610.

So it's to be hoped that on October 16, at high tide - when the water quality is supposed to be better as most of the effluents and pollutants will be washed away - the bacteria count will be low.

Wong has promised that if the swimmers are in any danger, the race will be postponed. Safety will be of prime importance. That is reassuring, although we must say in these molly-coddled days of political correctness, there are bound to be people crying wolf.

A former cross-harbour participant, David Chiu Chin-hung, another long-serving member of the swimming association, offered perspective when he said that in the 1960s the harbour was dirtier than it is now.

According to Chiu, swimmers had to dodge rubbish floating in the sea, as all refuse was pumped directly into the harbour. 'I believe the water is much safer now' says Chiu.

It may be so, but in these days, people are more finicky. And with the advance of technology people can be more prone to accepting alarmist views. All participants will know the chance of getting an infection might be present. But we hear every day that the air we breathe is poisonous, the food we eat is chemically laced, the water we drink is polluted - and yet we are all still around, aren't we?

A modicum of common-sense is needed. True, the harbour might not be as clean as a pristine Himalayan lake, but at the same time it is no sewer now that efforts are continuing to clean it up.

The 1,000 participants - organisers have limited numbers in this first comeback year - will know what they are stepping into. They can always pull out if they feel it is a danger to their health, although I doubt anyone will do so.

Now that this is up and running, the next step Wong and company should take is to push for the race to be held between TST and Central. These two landmark spots on the harbour will serve up a fantastic treat for participants and crowds alike.

Hong Kong has a ready-made, natural venue other cities would die for. A race between these two spots, like in the old days, would serve as a superb advertisement for the city. We should start advertising the race overseas - a goal of Wong and the swimming association - and getting top swimmers to take part. Their presence and the natural setting would be a sound recipe for raising the profile of the city. Now that the government has given the nod, the next step is to see the race being held between the two main tourist spots in Hong Kong, rather than hidden away, in a secluded corner of the harbour.