No golden future for some sporting stars

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 July, 2011, 12:00am


Athletes returning victorious from international competitions can usually expect to bask in glory, sometimes enriched by lucrative sponsorship.

Not so for members of a gold-medal-winning Hong Kong soccer team, many of whom had to quit their jobs or take unpaid leave to participate in an international competition, and have returned to obscurity and, in some cases, discrimination.

'No pain no gain, it's so true for them,' said Luk Wan-chuen, coach of the team, which won two competitions at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens. Hong Kong claimed 58 golds at the event for athletes with intellectual disabilities, which ended on July 4.

'It's not true Hong Kong is free from discrimination,' Luk said. 'Our team members have to double their efforts. Worse still, they have been offered only part-time jobs and are underpaid at least half.'

Soccer player Lam Man-hong, 26, switched his full-time job as a waiter to part-time work that paid him HK$30 an hour or HK$3,000 a month, just above the minimum wage.

'It makes practice easier,' Lam said. 'I took an overnight shift after the soccer practice from 8-9pm, so my boss wouldn't complain. I don't want to give up soccer and my job.'

Making ends meet is a priority for most athletes. 'Unless they're sponsored by a sports association, they have to earn a living once the match is over,' Luk said. 'Soccer is nothing more than a hobby in Hong Kong.'

But for some work comes first. Badminton player Ben Wu Hoi-fung, 19, who won two gold medals, has put down his racquet to take up a new career since his return from Athens.

Wu, who has played badminton for half his life and represented Hong Kong twice in world championships, will soon graduate from Hong Chi Pinehill School, a vocational training institute for people with intellectual disabilities.

On graduation, he will work as a waiter or bartender in a clubhouse.

It would have been a tough choice for many, but Wu, who has the mental capability of a 10-year-old, was clear. 'Playing badminton can only be a hobby, earning a living is more important,' he said. 'I miss my badminton life, but I knew one day I'd have to leave.'

Staying on the team would not be an option for Wu, admitted Benedict Cheung Chung-non, of the Hong Kong Sports Association for the Mentally Handicapped.

'The Special Olympics is designed to let more participate in sports,' Cheung said. 'Resources are limited, and we have to give priority to young athletes.'

Being a coach would not be plausible, either.

'Our athletes are strong in skills, but the theory exam would be too hard for them,' Cheung said.

The association plans to hire young athletes as assistant coaches, Luk said, but 'we can only afford to pay HK$70 hourly. They'll only teach eight to 10 hours in two months.'

Wu lives with his retired grandmother, Kwan Man-see. His mother abandoned him when he was three, with his cleaner father living separately from the family.

'His mother's family ill-treated him in kindergarten, that's why I wanted to take him back and feed him good food. But they asked for HK$10,000 in return for the 'trade',' she said, her voice shaking.

'All I want to see is Ben stand on his own feet. He can rely on no one,' said Kwan, who lives on a HK$1,000 monthly old-age allowance.

Wu used to cook only instant noodles, but now cooks up pork chops and mixes a fruit punch. 'I want to make money, he said. 'I want to make my grandmother happy.'