Hong Kong’s Olympic dreams are being crushed by too much government control of sport

Robert Wilson says the medal successes of similar-sized territories like Denmark, which promotes community leadership in sports, reflect where Hong Kong has gone wrong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 2:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 2:40pm

In less than three months, public attention will be drawn to the summer Olympic Games. Apart from the competition between the world’s top athletes, there will be fierce competition between the larger nations to see who can top the medal table.

For historical reasons, Hong Kong has the right to send its own team to the Games, but no one expects it to return with a clutch of medals. Starting in 1952, this year will be the 16th time Hong Kong is competing in the Games. On the previous 15 occasions, only three medals were won: gold in 1996, silver in 2004 and bronze in 2012. On the other 12 occasions, the team returned empty-handed.

Those without an interest in sport will wonder whether it is worth spending public money on sending a team with so little return, but those who do take an interest will feel disappointed and wonder why Hong Kong, with its successes in other fields, cannot do better. Legislators should ask why, with all the money spent on sport, we are consistently absent from Olympic medal tables.

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Before I answer this, I must make the point that no one should disparage the efforts of our sportspeople. Every single athlete we send to the Games has won the right to be there by competing in world and regional championships. They are a credit to Hong Kong and to their coaches, and their qualification for the Games is a testament to their willingness to undergo the most severe training for years.

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There are lessons to be learned from past results. Our 2012 London Olympic bronze medal placed us 79th in the medal table, a silver medal would have placed us 69th and a gold medal would have placed us 50th. If we are to do better, the aim must be to raise our performance standards to the point where we don’t just win the occasional medal (three in 60 years is not enough), but where we win multiple medals at every Olympics. Could this be possible?

We clearly cannot expect to compete against nations with much larger populations. We should, however, expect to compete against those with similar-sized populations and economic resources. Among these, and ranked 29th at the last Olympics, we find Denmark (population 5.6 million) with two gold, four silver and three bronze medals in five different sports. This was Denmark’s best Olympic haul in 64 years. Since Hong Kong started competing in the Olympics, Danish athletes have taken home 90 medals compared with Hong Kong’s three. If Denmark, with a much smaller population, can average six medals at each Games, what is the secret of its success and why can’t we do better?

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Let’s remember that international sport is all about competition and that teams represent their countries. A whole chain of requirements has to be in place to produce an athlete capable of winning a medal.

This chain can be referred to as the country’s sports system and the links in the chain include the government, local governments, sports facilities, sports governing bodies, sports clubs, domestic leagues and competitions, national teams, coaches, sports scientists, sponsors and a host of others who work in and for sports, either professionally or as volunteers.

Overlaying all of this are the policies pursued by the organisations involved. The strength of a chain is its weakest link and the principal differences between the Danish and the Hong Kong sports systems and the reason why Denmark’s performance is so much better are in the respective government policies.

Decades ago, the Danish government decided that sport should be organised by the community and that the roles of central and local government were to provide facilities and financial support and not to be involved in organising sport. In Denmark, clubs are the primary providers of sport, including sport for school children, and local authorities provide and maintain facilities for the use of the clubs and financial support.

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This approach is in contrast to Hong Kong’s, where the government organises most of the activity in public sports facilities and where a lack of facilities handicaps the development of domestic sport. This results in low participation, low performance standards and deprives the Hong Kong Sports Institute of a ready-made supply of top-performing athletes.

The Danish emphasis on clubs as the main provider of sport has resulted in 36 per cent of the population belonging to sports clubs, thus meeting another objective – that of developing a healthy community. Not only healthy, but Denmark regularly tops the national rankings of the World Happiness Report, in which Hong Kong comes in at a lowly 75, one place ahead of Somalia. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

In addition to controlling the use of public sports facilities, the government owns and finances the Hong Kong Sports Institute and dictates how it is run, even deciding which sports the institute should accommodate. The government provides support for sports governing bodies and some clubs, but dictates how the money is spent.

The weak link in the Hong Kong sports chain is the involvement of the government in organising and controlling sport, instead of being a facilitator and supporter.

Unless and until there are changes in government policy along the lines of those that have proved so successful in Denmark (and other countries), our participation in sport and results in international competition will continue to lag behind the potential of the community.

Robert Wilson is a former president of the Hong Kong, China Rowing Association. In 2013, he was awarded a Medal of Honour for contributions to sports development