Spirit of '64 still lives on

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am

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The Beatles were playing at the Princess Theatre in Tsim Sha Tsui on June 9, 1964. It didn't matter to Sarinder Dillon, who had already been through a hard day's night filling the buckets in his parents' flat in North Point, so there would be water to have a wash when he returned from another strenuous training session with the Hong Kong hockey team.

Hong Kong was in the grip of a severe drought. The reservoirs were dry and, for the lucky ones, pipe-borne water was available for only four hours a day on alternate days. Things got so bad the water cut sometimes lasted two whole days, or even three or four. But Dillon didn't mind.

Only a few days before, he and his teammates in the national squad had been told they were going to the Olympics in Tokyo. It was raining joy as the players wildly celebrated.

Since Hong Kong made its Olympics debut in 1952, no team had ever represented the city at the Games, and no other team since 1964 have competed at the quadrennial sporting extravaganza.

'We were the first team sport from Hong Kong to go to the Olympics, and we still are the only ones,' said Dillon, who today is the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association. While proud on the one hand, he is also sad that no other team sport has been able to travel the Olympian road in the past 48 years. And as far as hockey is concerned, he thinks it will never happen again.

In 1964, Hong Kong were lucky. It all began two years before when they were in the limelight after defeating South Korea at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Koreans, who were bronze medallists at the 1958 regional showpiece, had been expected to win.

'We defeated them 2-0 and that improved our overall ranking in Asia and the world,' says Kader Rahman, another member of the class of '64. That victory at the 1962 Asian Games put Hong Kong on notice for the Olympics two years later.

They were on the reserve list behind France and Poland.

'Even though we were on the reserve list, our president [of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee] Sonny [A de O] Sales warned us we would need to be fighting fit for him to approve hockey as part of the Hong Kong contingent if we were ever called up,' Rahman said.

'We trained our hearts out. That was real dedication. We didn't know we were going and if all the effort would be futile, but on the slim chance that it could happen, all of us gave 100 per cent in training.'

The dream came true. Hong Kong, who were ranked just outside the top 16 countries in the world, were asked to send a team after one country couldn't honour their Olympic commitments.

Both Dillon and Rahman can't remember which country pulled out, but sitting at the Indian Recreation Club this week, they recall the invitation to compete as if it was yesterday. 'We couldn't believe we were going to the Olympics,' said Rahman, who along with Dillon, Slawee Kadir, Farid Khan and John Monteiro are the only survivors of that 17-strong squad still living in Hong Kong.

Four members, including captain Pat Gardner, Omar Dallah, Rui da Silva and Jock Collaco, have died. The rest - Daniel Castro, Jose da Cunha, Lionel Guterres, Eric McCosh, Bosco da Silva, Harnam Grewal, Kuldip Singh and Zia Hussain - are scattered around the world.

'We had a good side and we were all really excited we were going to the Olympics, which were being held in Asia for the first time,' said Dillon, who was then just 17. An exceptionally talented player, at left-half, the Queen's College student was the baby of the side.

If Dillon's only problem was worrying over the possibility that there wouldn't be enough water to have a wash when he returned home after the ferry ride across the harbour, for the 24-year-old Rahman it was whether his new employer, Bank of America, would give him time off work to go to Tokyo.

'I had just joined them, and being on probation I was concerned if I could get time off,' Rahman recalls. 'I approached my boss, an American, with some trepidation to ask for leave and right away he approved it, saying it was the least he could do.'

Indonesia pulled out at the last minute, leaving 15 teams. Hong Kong were, however, drawn in a full complement of eight teams including eventual gold medallists India.

'We lost 6-0 to India, but we held them to a scoreless first half. We just ran out of steam,' said Dillon, who got to play one match in the competition, against Spain, a 4-0 loss.

Hong Kong lost all their group games bar one, a 1-1 draw against East Germany, who went on to finish fifth in the competition. 'That was an agonising result,' Rahman says. 'We were leading 1-0, through a field goal from Lionel Guterres, and held this lead almost to the end. But with just two minutes remaining, they scored. It was heartbreaking as we thought we had beaten them. It was more painful as their equaliser came from a deflection.'

Hong Kong hockey has not reached such heights since, although it has held its own at the regional level, participating in every Asian Games. But the bronze won at the 2009 East Asian Games remains the biggest prize of all.

Dillon, who has been a part of it all, first as a player and then as an administrator, puts it down to resources, or rather the lack of them.

'When I went to the Olympics, I had to pay HK$135 towards the cost of the trip. It is a little bit better these days as the players don't have to contribute anything, but still a lot of sacrifices have to be made as they have to take time off work,' he says.

Hong Kong is caught in a time warp. 'We are still an amateur team while most of the world has turned professional,' says Dillon. 'Even in Asia, most teams are professionals with the players training full time and being paid to play hockey. That is not the case in Hong Kong, where our players have to work.'

Today Hong Kong languishes in the second tier of countries in Asia, and can only look on in envy as India and South Korea travel to London in July for this summer's Olympics.

'I doubt Hong Kong will ever send another team to the hockey competition at the Olympics. I hope I'm proven wrong one day, but it is hard to see it happening,' Dillon says. 'We have to start by trying to be in the top tier in Asia first, before looking any further.'

Hong Kong has a vibrant domestic scene with 122 teams - 76 men's teams - and more than 2,000 players involved. But the biggest problem facing hockey is the lack of grounds. There are only four public facilities available -Happy Valley, King's Park, Lok Fu and Boundary Street, the latter two shared with soccer.

'We are very lucky the Hong Kong Football Club allows us to use their ground and at no cost. Without this, things would be really bad. But the bottom line is that hockey needs more grounds, and exclusively for us.'

Hockey was left crushed when the government decided it wouldn't pursue a 2023 Asian Games bid. It had been hoped a successful bid would be the catalyst to build a new hockey facility, one that could replace the ageing King's Park ground, which has limited space for spectators.

'They talk about holding sporting events that would raise the profile of the city. Just imagine if we could play host to an India v Pakistan international. A game like that would certainly do wonders,' said Dillon.

His dreams are of the past, and of the future. But the present is bleak.