Reaping the rewards of solid support
Long-term table tennis sponsor deserves credit for helping HK develop home-grown talent, which is now making an impact
Lee Ho-ching and Ng Wing-nam are two talented women table tennis players who earlier this month brought much credit and glory to Hong Kong when they won a bronze medal at the world team championships in Tokyo. They might have even gone further, if not for a heartbreaking, narrow loss to Japan in the semi-finals.
Yet winning a bronze medal is a huge deal and what makes this achievement even more significant is the fact that both Lee and Ng are home-grown talent, discovered at a young age and nurtured through the system. They are proof Hong Kong can produce table tennis champions.
The sport has always carried an asterisk against it, as in the past all our successes - including the Olympic silver medal won by Ko Lai-chak and Li Ching in the men's doubles event at the 2004 Athens Games - were brought home by players born on the mainland, who learned and honed their game there before deciding to come to Hong Kong at a latter stage of their lives to pursue their careers.
Not Lee and Ng, both 21. Their careers have shadowed each other with both discovering their passion for the game at a young age when they were part of the Hang Seng Table Tennis Academy.
And this brings me to the subject - the importance of corporations continuing their long-term support in sport - something Hang Seng Bank has done admirably.
The bank has been involved in table tennis since 1991 and it has dug deep, nurturing the sport from its grass roots. Most blue-chip sponsors come in at the top end, backing high-profile events where the dividends are plain to see - huge exposure worldwide on television, glitzy receptions for big-name overseas stars and entertaining clients at showcase events.
Table tennis has chosen to act mostly away from the limelight. To be brutally honest, it is not really a glamour sport. It's not like soccer or rugby sevens, which have massive interest, yet the bank has stayed faithful and its commitment is now starting to pay a real dividend in the form of youngsters like Lee and Ng coming through.
The first formally structured institute for a single sport in Hong Kong, the academy was established on the foundation of the former Hang Seng Table Tennis Development Programme set up in 1991. Since then more than HK$31 million has been pumped in. According to figures released by the bank, more than 200,000 children have been involved in the programme.
Lee and Ng are the products of this sweet collaboration. They were discovered in that programme and then fast-tracked through the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Today they are proud flag-bearers for the city and medal hopefuls at the Asian Games. Their success this year, which also included winning the doubles title at the Qatar Open, will put the spotlight firmly on them.
It will help silence critics who say table tennis has had to rely on mainland cast-offs for success. Times have changed and Hong Kong has moved with the times.
On page four today, we run an interview with Tie Yana, one of the most successful paddlers to come out of the mainland, and who, after the birth of her first child in December, is hoping to represent Hong Kong at the Asian Games in Incheon in September.
Tie, 35, won a gold medal in the mixed doubles event at the 2002 Asian Games. She retired from the national squad two years ago, but is now on the comeback trail and was part of the Hong Kong squad at the world team championships in Tokyo. She played a small role, with Lee and Ng leading the way.
Tie's admission that "the future of Hong Kong table tennis will be with home-grown players" is a huge shot in the arm for the development programme run by the Hong Kong Table Tennis Association in collaboration with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and, of course, the bank.
This change has been accelerated by outside circumstances, with Hong Kong unable to easily tap into the mainland talent pool simply because the International Table Tennis Federation now prevents countries from fielding players from other countries - read China - unless they took up residence before they were 17 years old.
Thankfully, the local association has been able to tap into a rich seam of talent and the results are plain to see. For this we are grateful for a sponsor who came in for the long haul.