Gymnast's leap of faith
Angel Wong Hiu-ying still clearly remembers she was only 12 years old when her beloved sport was kicked out of the elite programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute in 1999.
'I was a member of the junior squad and trained at the Challenge Gymnasium,' said Wong, now 24 and a member of the Hong Kong gymnastics delegation who won one of the SAR's three bronze medals at last month's World University Games.
'But one day we were told we had to leave the Sports Institute because we were no longer part of the programme there. At that time, I did not know what it meant exactly and how it would affect my sports career as I was too young. But I knew it wasn't a good thing.'
Gymnastics performed under par at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998 and failed to meet the required standards. It was dropped from the elite ranks when the next support cycle began in April the following year.
As a result, all the gymnasts lost their scholarship status at the institute and could no longer enjoy the top-class facilities at the centre, including training, sports science and medicine support. They also had to move out of the athletes' quarters and lost their monthly stipend. Worst of all, the institute also terminated the contract with their head coach and other coaching assistants.
In a bid to showcase their plight, Wong and other members of the Hong Kong team performed in front of the Legislative Council chambers in Central. She also wrote letters to authorities for assistance.
But everything fell on deaf ears. They had to leave the institute and the Challenge Gymnasium was redeveloped into a training hall for table tennis.
Twelve years later, gymnastics has won its spurs again and is back at the institute, thanks to Wong and teammate Shek Wai-hung.
'The entire sport suffered after we left the institute,' she said. 'We had limited resources for training and competition compared to other elite sports. It was a difficult period for the sport and the athletes.
'But thanks to the continued support of the gymnastics association, coaches, officials and also many parents, I was able to hang in there, despite the many hurdles.'
Without support from the institute, the Hong Kong Gymnastics Association had to rely on funding from the government's Leisure and Cultural Services Department, a sum that was mostly set aside for grass-roots development. 'At that time, we only received minimal subvention for our elite development programme and gymnasts like Angel, who gradually became our top-ranked athlete, could only enjoy six hours of training support [for coaching fees and venue charges] from the government each week,' association chairman Cheung Siu-yin said.
'But we need at least 20 hours a week to guarantee their quality of training and all this money had to come from our own pocket which added up to more than HK$1 million a year.
'While we had to appeal for donations from our patrons, we also organised coaching and judging classes as well as training courses for the public and all the profits went to supporting our elite training programmes. When it came to overseas training and competitions for our top gymnasts, we could no longer enjoy the support from the institute, which used to bear up to 80 per cent of the costs. We could do little but ask the gymnasts to pay from their own pockets. In the end, it was the parents who had to pay. Still, the gymnasts hung in there because of their passion for the sport.'
In the last review cycle between 2009 and 2011, gymnastics reached the required nine-point benchmark and was re-admitted to the Sports Institute in April. Wong and her men's counterpart Shek, the only full-time athletes in an elite squad of 20, achieved two significant results.
Shek came eighth out of 24 in the men's individual all-round at last year's Guangzhou Asian Games, while Wong finished in third place in the vault at two World Cup events.
With the help of these results, gymnastics was reinstated as one of 15 elite programmes and now receives support for the next four years to develop the sport at the highest level.
Wong is also able to enjoy her status as a scholarship athlete again, although her training venue is now at the Shun Lee Tsuen Sports Centre, where a gymnastics facility was opened by the government in 2005 after the closure of the Challenge Gymnasium..
A graduate of the Polytechnic University last year, Wong was eligible to represent Hong Kong at the University Games in Shenzhen because of the rules which allow athletes to compete a year after their graduation.
'It's nice to complete my university sporting career with a medal in its biggest multi-sport games,' said the vaulting specialist. 'This was my last World University Games and I am very happy to celebrate it with a medal. I have won medals at the World Cup before but that never catches so much attention from the media and the public.
'The support of the Sports Institute has also played a part in my success and I will grasp this opportunity to reach a higher level.'
Wong's next target will be a place in the Olympic Games in London next year.
'The qualifications begin at the world championships in Tokyo next month but it's not easy as it requires a podium finish if I want to get an Olympics berth in the vault,' said Wong, who came seventh in the event in Ghent, Belgium, for the FIG Challenge Cup last week.
'Another way to get through is to qualify for the individual all-round competition, which comprises four routines - uneven bars, vault, floor exercise and balance beam. If I can rank in the world's top 20 next year [excluding the top gymnasts from powerhouses like China, the United States and Russia], I can also realise my Olympic dream. But because we didn't have many resources before, I could only focus on one discipline and my skills on the floor and uneven bars are not that good. It makes the all-round qualification the toughest task for me.
'Hong Kong has never had an Olympic representative in gymnastics and it will be my biggest challenge to be the first.'