No reason for athletes to remain amateurs

Relay team does HK proud but athletics association is behind the times by not embracing a more professional approach

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 4:45am

If Hong Kong quartet Tang Yik-chun, Lai Chun-ho, Ng Ka-fung and Tsui Chi-ho had stumbled upon a magic portal and had found themselves back in Tokyo, 1964, then their time in the 4x100 metres relay last weekend would have seen them being crowned Olympic champions. Unfortunately, that Back to the Future time travel is only for the celluloid set, so the Hong Kong's men team had to settle for Pune, an automotive hub in India, where they motored to the first gold medal won by a local athlete at the Asian athletics championships.

The four ran the relay in 38.94 seconds to finish ahead of traditional continental powers Japan and China. It was not their best time (38.47) but it was a superb effort and they now deservingly hold the title as the best in Asia. It is something Hong Kong should be very proud of.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the four are also full-time scholarship athletes at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Tsui has been on the books at the Fo Tan elite academy since 2009, Tang since 2010 while Lai and Ng joined in 2011. So it would make sense that the more athletes who are in the programme, the better. But is this the case? Sadly, no, for in total there are only six full-time athletes in the athletics programme at the Sports Institute, a shockingly small number when considering that the sport is one of the blue riband events at any major Games.

Apart from the men's relay team, 200 metres sprinter Leung Ki-ho and high jumper Lui Tsz-hin are the only other full-time athletes. There are 15 other athletes who are part-timers, taking the grand total to 21. So, out of nearly 600 athletes, both full-time and part-time at the Sports Institute, only just over three per cent are in the athletics programme. A poor show.

To become a full-time or part-time athlete at the Sports Institute, one has to reach standards set by the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association. That is the first objective. Then comes the hard part - having to commit to training and chasing the dream. It seems many don't want to sacrifice their time, preferring to complete their studies and run after a career than a medal.

But is this the norm? Looking at the numbers across the other 15 elite sports at the Sports Institute, it might not be the case. For instance, badminton has 33 full-time athletes and 14 part-timers, table tennis 17 full-time and 24 part-time, while cycling has 14 full-time and 12 part-timers. It is no coincidence that Hong Kong is successful in all three sports at regional and international level.

The myth that athletics is a bridge too far for local athletes to cross, has now been proved just that, a myth, by the relay team. Standards may be high but Tang and company have shown that nothing is impossible. The Hong Kong triple A's assertion - when asked why there were so few full-time athletes at the Sports Institute - is that it is all about taking part and not winning. That is absurd.

"Our objective is not to win medals, instead, to promote athletics being one of the popular sports in Hong Kong" was the party line dished out by the association. This might have been okay a couple of decades ago, maybe during the time of former Hong Kong Olympic chief A de O Sales, who was a strong upholder of the beliefs and values of Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics.

But those days are gone. With the government pumping billions of dollars into sports - setting up a HK$7 billion Elite Athletes Development Fund as well as renovating and refurbishing the Sports Institute to the tune of HK$1.8 billion - it is imperative that national sports associations shed age-old and crusty habits. For a start, perhaps the Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association should drop "Amateur" from its title and use the millions of dollars it pockets every year from the Hong Kong Marathon to unearth more athletes willing to train full-time at the Sports Institute.

Until this happens, we can only savour the moment of glory brought by Tang, Lai, Ng and Tsui. They each ran a splendid 100 metres to bring gold and recognition to Hong Kong. They have now set their sights on next month's world championships in Moscow. That might indeed be a bridge too far - Usain Bolt and Jamaica's run-machine hold the record time of 36.84 set at last year's London Olympics - but there is no harm in dreaming big. And for the first time they will be taking part as Asian champions.