Cyclist Choi Ki-ho's early retirement a crying shame
Sports Institute must revisit funding policy after top cyclist Choi Ki-ho, just 22, decides to call it a day as a full-time athlete
Something must be really wrong if a talented young athlete on the cusp of achieving great things for Hong Kong, and who is also being chased by a foreign professional team, should decide to throw it all away in the interests of going back to school.
Cyclist Choi Ki-ho is a naturally gifted athlete and was being spoken of as the next Wong Kam-po, Hong Kong's top road-racer who has proudly represented the city for the past two decades or more at the Olympics and Asian Games - winning multiple medals in the latter.
Choi is Wong's heir apparent. Or he was supposed to be, until he shocked cycling officials this week, as well as those at the Hong Kong Sports Institute where he is an elite athlete, with the news that he wants to quit the sport.
The reason he offered is that his interest has waned. To put it simply, at 22, Choi is burnt out. He wants to return to school and pursue business studies.
This is sad. While we don't discourage athletes from chasing an academic future - the lifespan of an athlete is limited in sport and he or she must look ahead - it is a still a massive jolt to discover that a budding career is being cut short to secure a long-term future.
Choi burst on to the scene three years ago when he won a gold medal in the madison at the World Cup with teammate Kwok Ho-ting. That result underlined the belief that he was one of the hottest young things around and someone who was destined to carry on the good work of Wong, our King of the Road.
What makes his decision even more unfathomable is that he has also turned down a contract with a top professional cycling team in Australia who have competed in the Tour de France for many years. His refusal to even entertain this lucrative offer is evidence that he is serious about quitting the sport. Not many Hong Kong riders get offers from overseas teams, and for him to turn his back on such a golden opportunity speaks volumes for his state of mind.
The Hong Kong Cycling Association is at its wits end wondering what to do. Its chairman, Leung Hung-tak, said officials had tried everything to convince Choi to stay in the saddle but all their best efforts have been in vain. Leung, a former rider himself, cannot believe Choi is spurning the chance to race professionally and follow the dream any daredevil youngster on two wheels would harbour. Leung said he had asked Choi to grab the chance of racing for a professional outfit - "to be offered a contract is very rare" - and to defer his studies for a couple of years.
Choi has been understudy to Wong for years and his talents were further noticed in 2011 as a road racer when he became the youngest Tour of Korea winner at 19. But thoughts of quitting the sport came in mid-September after he finished a lowly 28th at the National Games in Shenyang.
Choi is adamant he wants to quit. "I have already decided to attend a local university next year and pursue a business degree. I don't want to be a full-time athlete, too," said the 2010 Asian Games silver medallist. He has been on a full-time scholarship at the Sports Institute since 2008.
In desperation, the cycling association even employed a sports psychologist to persuade Choi to change his mind. The shrink has met with little success.
For Choi to give up a monthly income of nearly HK$30,000 from the Sports Institute, as well as turn the Aussies down, means he is dead serious.
It is unclear if Choi's path to academia will be paved by the set-up at the Sports Institute, which offers athletes who retire access to funds for education.
Many senior coaches at the Sports Institute in fact bemoan this aspect. While everyone wants to see an athlete secure a future by also studying and earning a degree, it seems some athletes take advantage of the system after being on the elite programme for a few years.
One senior coach, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "Some young students with good sporting potential may even plan to enter the HKSI programmes with the objective of accessing this support and others may quit the programme at a very young age, or 'retire' as they call it, in order to access retired athlete support services."
It would be a shame if Choi is riding down this path. If it is the case, the Sports Institute should perhaps take another look at providing "retired" athletes with funding for studies.