Hong Kong Stadium has had a diseased heart from the beginning, as the government knows well

Hong Kong Stadium has had a diseased heart from the beginning, as the government knows well

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 10:45am

Here we go again. Now that the Hong Kong Stadium has become a laughing stock, it is time to remedy the sorry situation. It is not the first time - but hopefully the last - that we find ourselves in this position as the much-maligned pitch has an inglorious past.

The government has now promised to take remedial measures but knew before 1998 that the heart and soul of Hong Kong's stadium was diseased. . That was when the government terminated the contract with then management company Wembley International (HK) Ltd and its English parent company, Wembley plc, for mismanagement. The government then sued Wembley but in 2004 William Stone, Judge of the Court of First Instance, ruled in favour of the defendant, dismissing the plaintiff's (Secretary for Justice) case that the pitch was damaged by poor maintenance.

Justice Stone strongly censured the government for bringing a frivolous charge - in fact, charges (plural), as 23 complaints targeted Wembley - pointing out that someone with lesser resources than Wembley may have succumbed to pressure. He awarded HK$21.8 million to Wembley.

"The manner in which this case has been conducted strikes me as ill-considered at best, and at worst little short of oppressive," Stone said. "A defendant with lesser resources may well have been forced to fold its tent and creep away."

But Wembley defeated the government in court, thus proving it wasn't poor maintenance of the pitch - the only issue which Justice Stone felt was worthy of coming under review - which led to an outcry, but rather that it had inherited a stadium with a rotten core.

So who was responsible? Fingers were pointed at the Hong Kong Jockey Club which bequeathed the stadium to the people of Hong Kong after spending HK$850 million on redeveloping the old Government Stadium.

The redevelopment took place between April 1992 and March 1994, providing a modern stadium with greatly improved facilities for hosting major sports and entertainment events. It sounded grand and the edifice was indeed breathtaking. Even today, Hong Kong Stadium is quite impressive when first sighted. But its heart was always damaged.

Why? Simply because the pitch was structurally flawed as Justice Stone's court discovered. During litigation, it was revealed the pitch's design was very much the "baby" of one senior and respected Jockey Club official, John Halliday, the then chief engineer and construction projects controller of the club.

The court held that Halliday was a strong-minded man of firm view, who brooked little interference with the constituent elements of his pitch design - a layer of washed Bermuda grass turf above a 150mm sand mesh layer, which in turn was laid over a 125mm pure sand layer, and finally a 75mm gravel layer of 10mm single size aggregate placed on top of a perforated drain, which drain itself was packed with a 10mm gravel surround.

From the outset there were strong reservations, certainly on the part of Wembley and also by the project architects, about the use of a stabilising top layer of sand mesh in the design of a sports field (as opposed, for example, to the use of sand mesh on a racecourse, which had been used at Sha Tin with some success). Despite these concerns, no action was taken as it was felt Halliday's views were entrenched and would be difficult to change, particularly as the Jockey Club was footing the handsome bill.

The court heard that in a letter dated May 23, 1994, Wembley had written to Halliday providing details of the problems encountered after a Chelsea v Hong Kong match, played when the pitch had had 10 days without use. The pitch had "cut-up badly". It said the players could not accelerate, turn or sidestep without the danger of losing their footing, and noted, further, the level of the pitch was not satisfactory for top-class sport.

This sounds all too familiar. What it also proves is this has been a problem for two decades, a shocking state of affairs. Ten years ago the government tried to pass the blame on to the management company and failed. Today, it acts shocked and has promised action.

It's high time some concrete measures were taken. The way forward will be to dig up the existing surface and replace it with a proper foundation and turf. We have wasted enough time. We are the laughing stock of the world thanks to our premier sporting venue.