Sports lessons from Hong Kong squash: build a strong base, and excellence will follow
Tony Kwok says the experience of local squash shows that sporting success at the highest level really rests on active community involvement and a good feeder system
The visit by the nation’s Olympic champions to Hong Kong over the weekend was a tremendous success. However, the wide media coverage dwarfed one significant local sports achievement. In the Hong Kong Squash Open held at the weekend and attended by all the top players in the world, Hong Kong’s Max Lee Ho-yin made it into the semi-finals. If squash was an Olympic sport, Lee could have secured a bronze medal. His success should be seen as a testament to Hong Kong’s successful sports development.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s recent announcement that the government will conduct a review of its sports policy, taking into consideration the UK’s successful experience, could be an important milestone for us. The government does not lack funds. Hence, if there is a will, there is certainly a promising way ahead.
Perhaps some lessons can be drawn from the development of local squash, which takes pride in never importing players and which, through an elaborate feeder system, has succeeded in turning out many world-class players, such as former Asian Games gold medallist Rebecca Chiu Wing-yin; Annie Au Wing-chi, a world top 10 player; 2015 Asian champion Leo Au Chun-ming; Joey Chan Ho-ling; and of course Max Lee.
The development system starts with the promotion of mini squash in primary schools. Many young talents, including some of the current elite players, were identified at this stage. Next, the talented players are offered training at the 30 community clubs across the city, with some progressing to the 20 district training centres. The more promising players will then advance to the regional training centres, of which there are six, and some are picked for professional training at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
The critical success factor of this feeder system is that it is based on integrity, openness and fairness. No player can go through the back door to jump any stage.
This system works well but, like all other sports in Hong Kong, is constrained by limited funding. This is where government funding can make a big difference. The emphasis on community clubs is particularly worthwhile as it would help build residents’ sense of identity and encourage youngsters to live a healthy lifestyle.
I am most disappointed to hear some suggestions that Hong Kong should reduce the number of elite sports and concentrate resources on a few Olympic gold hopefuls. That is a short-sighted approach. Sports development should promote healthy living and all popular sports should be encouraged, not discouraged.
The government has already demonstrated its commitment by appointing our first-ever sports commissioner. I look forward to the day when our sporting success is on a par with those countries with small populations but huge sports achievement, such as New Zealand and Denmark. If they can do it, there is no reason why we can’t.
Tony Kwok is an honorary adviser at Hong Kong Squash and a former chairman of its executive committee