Olympic glory must not be the sole aim of Hong Kong sports

Peter Kammerer says while there’s no reason to begrudge the support given to our elite athletes, the government must also invest in promoting sports for the masses

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 2:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 8:31pm

Hong Kong has won hundreds of overseas sporting accolades over the years, but there is only one event that counts, the Olympic Games. Our record at that level is less than stellar, with solitary gold, silver and bronze medals to show after participating in 15 summer and four winter editions. That may seem a harsh assessment, given that we have a population of only 7.2 million, but it has to be remembered that the government has spent billions of dollars since an institute was established 12 years ago to groom athletes for excellence. The pressure on the 38-strong athletic squad taking part in the Rio Olympics is enormous.

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Our only Olympic gold medallist, 1996 Atlanta games windsurfing champion Lee Lai-shan, summed it up last week, telling the competitors that they had to justify the generous funding spent on them by performing to their best and, hopefully, bringing back medals. About 1,100 athletes receive full- or part-time financial support and training through the Hong Kong Sports Institute, so this is indeed an elite group. The latest annual expenditure for the centre was HK$435 million. Most of its income was derived from a HK$7 billion one-off fund. There’s a further HK$260 million, provided annually by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Further encouraging excellence are cash incentives under a joint scheme between the institute and the Hang Seng Bank.

Lee Lai-shan’s message to Hong Kong’s Rio athletes – they spend millions on you, so don’t waste this chance

We have to applaud the passion and guts of our top sportspeople, but questions have to be asked about whether the investment in them is justified. Community pride is the government’s main objective in handing out so much funding. We’re supposed to feel good and celebrate together when a medal is won. Lee Lai-shan achieved that when she struck gold, but it helped that she had a good story, having lived a simple life on Cheung Chau as one of 10 children and being a likeable person who ordinary Hongkongers could relate to. The sort of government support that elite athletes now have didn’t exist then, making her achievement even more remarkable.

Medals also give us bragging rights. Hong Kong can promote itself on the international stage and hopefully attract sporting events to bring in visitors. In top-flight athletes, youngsters also have role models to look up to.

I wonder how many of our current sports stars can be named by the typical person in the street. Not being a local sports buff, I admit to struggling beyond London 2012 Olympic bronze-winning cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze, although I am aware that we have an international bowling champion in a cancer survivor surnamed Wu and a young woman who claimed the world snooker title in 2015. Child obesity rates are rising, so kids plainly aren’t making for playing fields. The biggest benefactors of so much largesse would ultimately appear to be political figures, who get to burnish their images by posing for photographs with medal-winners.

The founding principles of the modern Olympics say nothing about pride and medals. The aim was to bring people together to promote peace, tolerance, cultures and healthy minds and bodies. Participating is the most important matter; being faster, higher or stronger should surely be secondary.

There’s nothing wrong with the government helping to fund sporting organisations and giving especially gifted athletes support if they need it. But its energies in the area should mostly go into making it easier for all in the community to get some exercise and physical activity. Funding should be about parks, playgrounds, sporting fields and complexes, jogging tracks and cycle paths.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post