Bad break for snooker justified

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


In my salad days, snooker was considered a harmful pastime, frowned upon by my elders who would rather have had me running around a rugby field or trying to emulate the cricketing icons of the day like Viv Richards or David Gower. But growing up, plenty of kids in Colombo, Sri Lanka, were drawn to the green baize. It may have been partly because we had a world champion in billiards - MJM Lafir - but I suspect it was more to do with trying to be rebellious as it was regarded as uber cool to lounge around a snooker table, smoking cigarettes and acting like James Dean.

The sport cannot be blamed for mis-spent youth, but that perception of potting balls into pockets being a total waste of time has been ingrained in the psyche ever since and it has been hard to shake off that image. So it is no surprise that I support the Sports Institute's decision to axe snooker from its elite programme in March 2013 - not because it is a waste of time, but because the sport is no longer part of the Asian Games.

You have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise we would have the Hong Kong Tiddlywinks Association asking for funding from the elite academy. And using the criteria of being an Asian Games discipline is the fairest and most equitable way of deciding whether to fund a sport.

To be fair to snooker, it is not through any fault of its own that it has been dropped from the medal programme. The sport has been part of the Asian Games since 1998 in Bangkok, when the hosts included it because they felt they had a sure chance of potting gold in the form of James Wattana, the first Asian player to make it big on the world professional circuit.

But with the addition of more and more sports bloating the Games - Guangzhou in 2010 had 42 - the Olympic Council of Asia decided for the sake of economics to cut the number. Those which faced the chop became part of the Asian Indoor Games or the Asian Beach Games. Snooker was one such sport.

The Hong Kong Sports Institute supports 15 sports, including snooker. But it has now been given only a two-year guarantee of support, until March 2013, when it will be asked to leave.

Right on cue, there has been an outcry from both officials and athletes in the sport. We feel sympathy for Ng On-yee, who won a gold medal with the women's snooker team, as well as an individual bronze in Guangzhou, for feeling aggrieved.

She said the world-class facilities available at the Sha Tin academy - from sports science and medicine to fitness and conditioning - had been a major factor in helping her hone her skills. In addition, being an elite sport, snooker also had the services of a head coach, Wayne Griffiths, who has done a lot of hard work.

According to Danny Mak Yiu-hoi, the chairman of the Hong Kong Billiard Sports Control Council, Griffiths has made significant progress in the development programme, which has gathered impetus since the sport was admitted into the institute in 2009.

Athletes like Ng, who helped boost Hong Kong's medal tally at the Asian Games, will be hard hit, especially in the pocket. Top athletes receive a monthly training grant of up to HK$32,000 as well as free room and board at the institute. They also get an allowance when they travel overseas for training.

No wonder she is unhappy, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. While the institute's complicated funding criteria - where sports have to reach a nine-point benchmark through international success at both senior and junior level - should be revisited and changed to make it fairer, they cannot be faulted for using the Asian Games as the be-all and end-all to determine who receives support.

Snooker has been dropped from the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. This is because the Koreans have been told to limit the number of sports, and partly because snooker is now in the Indoor Games. Winning medals is our priority. And in this aspect, the Sports Institute has got it right as that will be the way its success is judged. In today's world, where every dollar given by the government - which funds the Sports Institute - has to be carefully spent, it is inevitable that sports that are not part of any major international games be culled.

Perhaps, looking ahead, the institute should raise the bar even further and only roll out the red carpet for sports which are part of the summer Olympics programme. Unless there is an unlimited budget, there is no point plowing money into a minority sport.