Hong Kong's disdainful attitude toward sport is costing it medals
Swimming and athletics have the least number of full-time athletes at the Sports Institute, and the problem is the disdainful local attitude to sport
Fact: The two blue-riband sports at the Olympics and Asian Games - athletics and swimming - account for less than 5 per cent of the total number of full-time athletes at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
Fact: The government has pumped HK$9 billion into elite sports over the past couple of years.
Is this money being well spent? Why are there so few full-time participants in the athletics and swimming programmes? What can be done to raise the "critical mass" - a term used by the elite academy's chief executive, Trisha Leahy, so Hong Kong can increase its chances of winning medals at major games?
Of the 16 sports in the elite category at Fo Tan, athletics and swimming have the least number of full-time athletes. Athletics has six from a total of 21, the rest are part-time, while swimming has four full-time and 64 part-timers.
When rugby sevens finalises its programme and comes on board at the end of this month, the number of full-time athletes will cross the 200 mark which means the two blue-riband sports represent a minority.
The reason is straightforward, says David Chiu Chin-hung, a long-time official of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association (HKASA).
And that's the pressure from parents to channel their children into academia and a career, rather than sports.
"Studies are important, for sport is just a short part of your life," says Chiu, a former manager of the Hong Kong swimming team at the Olympics and now assistant secretary of the HKASA.
He knows firsthand. His daughter, Caroline Chiu Sin-wing, represented Hong Kong in breaststroke events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She never went full-time.
"We didn't want her to concentrate 100 per cent on swimming and our advice was to try to balance both. It was tough for her and only the last couple of months before the Games did she train full-time," Chiu said. "Our approach was that swimming makes you healthy and we encouraged that, but not at the expense of studies. Most Asian parents think like this."
Caroline Chiu completed her degree at Chinese University and is now a chartered accountant.
Her approach is common even today with 64 swimmers at the Sports Institute choosing to go part-time. The four who are full-time are Sze Hang-yu, Wong Chun-yan, David Wong Kai-wai and Yan Ho-chun.
Hong Kong record-holder in the women's 100 metres freestyle and 100m butterfly, Hannah Wilson, agreed that ingrained cultural habits make it difficult for the new generation to give up their studies for a couple of years and concentrate on Olympic dreams.
But the results can be amazing for those who dedicate their efforts full-time to sports as the men's 4x100 metres relay team discovered at the Asian Athletics Championships in Pune, India, this month. Lai Chun-ho, Ng Ka-fung, Tang Yik-chun and Tsui Chi-ho are four of the six full-time athletes in the programme. Tsui has been in the programme for four years, Tang for three, Lai and Ng for two.
They won Hong Kong's first gold medal at an Asian Championships, winning the feature relay race and relegating traditional Asian powers Japan and China to also-rans.
"Studies play a big role when our athletes decide what to do, and they have the right to choose. It is up to them to decide whether to go full-time or not, it is their own preference," says Dennis Ng Yu-ho, Hong Kong Amateur Athletic Association executive director.
The men's relay team, having shown what can be achieved by going full-time, have set their sights even higher - winning a gold medal at next year's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
With such a small base, it is natural the fab four are the focus of the athletics programme right now, a fact admitted by top official Dr Anthony Giorgi.
"A core focus is the men's relay team which qualified as one of the top 16 teams out of more than 200 countries at the last Olympics.
"Now that we have won the Asian Championships, our aim is to sustain this momentum and to make sure they are provided with the best opportunities [training and competition] to compete for medals at the Asian Games," said Giorgi, head athletics coach at the HKSI.
At last year's Olympics in London, athletics and swimming accounted for 81 of the 302 gold medals on offer, while at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou it was 84 out of 477 - a major share of the booty.
Even China has discovered that to consistently challenge fellow superpower the United States for bragging rights at the top of the medal standings, it will have to do something about its athletics programme. Liu Xiang's gold medal in the 110 metres hurdles at 2004 Athens Olympics was the country's first in a men's track and field event. And it remains the only one.
With the dearth in full-time athletes in these two blue-riband sports, the stated goal of the Hong Kong Sports Institute to win more medals, especially at an Asian Games, seems unlikely to be met. The team won eight golds (out of 40 medals in total) to finish 11th in the standings at the last games in Guangzhou.
The eight gold medals came from other sports, mostly cycling which won half of them. Is it a coincidence then that cycling has the third largest number of full-time athletes among the elite sports at the HKSI - a grand number of 14?
Leahy is firm in the conviction that the more full-time athletes, the better the chances are for medal success.
"Our approach is consistent across all sports. If the Sports Institute is to add value to the NSAs [associations] as the elite training system delivery agent for the government and bring a return on the government's HK$9 billion investment in elite sport, then we need to have a critical mass of at least 500 full-time athletes across the current Tier A sports, to be consistently competitive on the world stage," Leahy said.
The government set up an Elite Athletes Development Fund with a grant of HK$7 billion in 2011 which is used to fund the HKSI programme from its return on investments.
In addition, more than HK$1.8 billion was spent on the redevelopment of facilities at Fo Tan, the entire project expected to be completed by the end of this year.
"The greater the number of successful full-time athletes we have, the greater the momentum," Leahy said.
Athletics has that momentum with the success of the men's relay being a huge shot in the arm. But with 200m sprinter Leung Ki-ho and high jumper Lui Tsz-hin being the only other full-time athletes, the track ahead for medal glory seems to be a long one.
David Chiu believes until Hong Kong acquires a sports culture, and until sports can be seen as providing a career pathway or can be financially rewarding, it would be better to temper expectations.
"Athletics and swimming are popular sports in Hong Kong, but unlike in the US there are no endorsements on offer for top athletes. Being a champion in Hong Kong doesn't guarantee you a job, only academics can do that," Chiu said.