No awards, no recognition: how Hong Kong is failing its homegrown athletes
Funding and special treatment for a few ‘elite’ sports leaves other professional players out in the cold
Under the bright lights of Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta and before a raucous crowd, Hong Kong baseball player Kenneth Chiu Chi-kam strides onto the field, ready to pitch for his team.
It is the 2018 Asian Games, and despite not being on home ground, Chiu soaks up the atmosphere – a far cry from attendance back home, where only sparse crowds gather on the bleachers. Chiu’s squad eventually beat Indonesia 7-4.
The team would go on to lose 12-2 to Pakistan, finishing sixth in the tournament rankings – the best showing for Hong Kong in the sport over the past three Asian Games.
“This once again shows that we athletes are not garbage,” 27 year-old Chiu says, echoing retired windsurfer Lee Lai-shan in 1996, when she won the city’s first Olympic gold.
Chiu and his teammates were among the athletes who came home to a hero’s welcome at the airport, hailed by fans, family and officials.
The 586-strong Hong Kong contingent tallied its best-ever medal haul at the Asian Games last month – eight golds, 18 silvers and 20 bronzes, for a total of 46.
While the outpouring of affection for the medallists was heartening, the enthusiasm for the city’s sporting heroes has not always been this forthcoming.
“Only the top of the top are praised. They get the fame, the funding, subsidies, venues and support, while for us, we are constantly struggling in every way,” Chiu says, referring to the city’s baseball players.
Chiu works part-time as a financial adviser, while most of his teammates hold nine-to-five jobs and attend baseball practice four times a week after knocking off.
“We work so there’s a fallback plan after we retire from the sport,” he says.
Chiu speaks for many athletes, who pursue their passion with little support and cannot rely on sporting excellence for a livelihood. As a result, many eventually give up to focus on other careers.
Hong Kong’s sportsmen and sportswomen are not getting the respect they deserve because society as a whole has not fostered a culture of appreciation for such activities, lawmaker Wu Chi-wai says.
“Our education focuses a great deal on academic results. Children are raised to achieve great academic results – all the drilling and tests – which leaves them no time to enjoy sports. No one cares about sports.”
From badminton to bubble tea
Isis Poon Lok-yan is a professional badminton player who represented Hong Kong at the Olympics in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. As the 27-year-old moves closer to the end of her sporting career, she has opened a bubble tea store with her boyfriend, Gavin So Ka-chun.
“I feel the need to prepare in advance and not to wait until the day of my retirement to think about what to do,” Poon says.
Her boyfriend, who takes care of the business, is a former management trainee at a multinational company. As a badminton player who chose not to pursue the sport full-time, he understands the pressure Poon faces as an athlete.
Her father, Poon Fai-hung, 60, was also a professional badminton player, and discouraged his only daughter from going full-time because he knew how tough it would be. But Poon was drawn to the game at the age of 10, and steady success led her to the Hong Kong team.
Although she was aware that prospects for full-time athletes were not good, she knew she would regret it if she did not push herself as far as she could go in the sport.
Poon achieved outstanding results in the women’s doubles. She took home the gold at the 2012 Yonex Open, in Japan, and the bronze at the East Asian Games and the BWF World Junior Championships in 2009.
As an Olympic Games candidate, she received some of the best treatment from the Hong Kong Sports Institute, with support from her coach and physiotherapists.
Professional badminton players are paid between HK$6,000 (US$766) and HK$26,000 a month depending on their performance in tournaments. Players who advance into the round of 16 also receive a bonus, which can climb as high as HK$20,000, depending on the grade of the competition. That amount doubles every round they reach thereafter.
But they are considered self-employed and do not receive the compulsory 5 per cent contribution by employers to their Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF).
Poon says players who do not shine are often criticised by spectators. Even coaches prefer to concentrate on better players, and many young ones are left unattended.
“I have come across this myself, and I know how easy it is to feel lost at this stage,” she says.
Not enough support
There are now 19 sports considered as “elite” by the Hong Kong Sports Institute, up from 12 in 1997, including badminton, cycling, gymnastics, rowing, rugby, sailing, swimming, table tennis, tennis, triathlon and windsurfing.
About 350 full-time athletes are involved in these sports, plus another 400 part-timers and 200 potential athletes.
Under the institute’s selection criteria, if players can win a medal at the Asian Games every four years, the sport is assured of keeping its elite status. Failing to do so means the sport will be removed from “tier A” until the next review period, which comes every two years. The sport can regain its status if the athletes do well in the Asian Championship or at similar levels of competition.
Elite players like Poon can receive financial support from the government, such as an elite training grant and a sports aid grant, which can mean a monthly subsidy of up to HK$38,840.
In contrast, less popular sports like rope skipping and baseball are not eligible for government funding.
Lobo Louie Hung-tak, associate professor of physical education at Baptist University, says all governments must come up with a funding system to allocate limited public resources.
“There must be a policy to prioritise funding and justify why they grant more to major sports and less to the minor ones. From an academic point of view, it is quite difficult to decide when to give.”
Louie says the government is more willing to back star athletes deemed to have a higher potential to strike gold, such as cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze, because this is seen to have a positive impact on society and have educational value in terms of sportsmanship.
Chiu argues however that in reality, the elite sports system means newer sports like baseball struggle and depend on the passion of athletes to get by.
Despite his 28-member team’s respectable showing at the Asian Games, the players still have to dig into their own pockets to continue competing. They need full-time jobs to self-fund their own training, travel and uniforms so they can pursue their dreams.
“All of the initiatives sound nice and all, but only for the top athletes,” Chiu says.
“The top will remain on top due to the sufficient support they receive, while those who are climbing up the ladder may die trying. It’s understandable that baseball or rope skipping are less well-known sports in society, but it doesn’t mean we don’t deserve support.”
The lack of training facilities is another major problem, Chiu says. The only baseball pitch in the city that meets international standards is Sai Tso Wan Baseball Field in Nam Tin, and the venue must be shared with football players.
Even when they have the field, the team often can play for only two hours – half the time needed for an entire game.
“Baseball has to share a space with football when they need to practise, whereas we can’t play on the many football fields across the city,” he says. “How is this fair?”
Poon says while there are enough resources for good performers, other professional athletes also deserve more respect and support.
Money aside, when it comes to other kinds of support, like therapist services, better performing players are treated before their “weaker” counterparts, she says.
“Others will criticise how badly they play on the court, but people should not deny their hard work and effort behind the scenes,” she adds.
Lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the sector for sports, performing arts, culture and publication, agrees that the current funding system has room for improvement. For one, the number of elite sports should be expanded so other athletes do not feel neglected, he says.
“I think we can also do more to support the non-elite athletes, such as reviewing the mechanism of the system,” Ma says. “The non-elite ones may just need a slight push for them to make it to elite [status].”
The government can help in other ways, he says, such as setting aside more resources and providing a lump sum to different sport associations so they can better support rising stars in less popular sports.
“Finding a venue to practise is often very problematic, I hope the government can look into ways to provide more sports facilities for the city’s professional athletes so they can focus on their performance,” he adds.
Star cyclist Wong Kam-po, who represented Hong Kong at the Olympics five times, from 1996 to 2012, said athletes like the city’s baseball players deserve extra praise.
“They are mainly doing it for the love of the game,” he says. “It’s not easy doing what they do, juggling work with practise and training for overseas competitions.”
After sports, what next?
More often than not, athletes who retire find it hard to re-enter the workforce.
Wong, who considers himself lucky, says he was able to find a coaching job after deciding to retire because he had made a name for himself in cycling. But those less fortunate end up becoming clerks or personal trainers.
“Since they spent most of their childhood training, they might not have had much time to focus on academics, so nothing is guaranteed,” the 45-year-old veteran explains.
He recalls how he became a sales manager at the age of 20 when he was banned from cycling following an internal dispute among riders during a pre-Olympic training camp in Europe in 1992. It was then that reality hit him – he had not even graduated from high school yet.
Last year, Wong left his coaching job at the Hong Kong Sports Institute to finish his health education degree at the Education University of Hong Kong.
Many athletes worry about their post-sports life, especially because they were admitted to the national team at an early age and have only Form Three qualifications.
Most go on to become coaches, but very few can get an office job after going back to school. And even being a coach is no guarantee of a stable income.
The big picture
Lawmaker Wu says the government is failing to see the big picture when it comes to promoting sporting excellence in Hong Kong.
“To provide funding for just the elite athletes is only scratching the surface and is not helping the development of sports as a whole. To resolve the problem, the Education Bureau should stress more on physical education for young children,” he recommends.
With the overall lack of emphasis on sports, Wu adds, it is no wonder that many talented local players have reservations about becoming full-time athletes.
Chiu agrees: “It’s really hard being an athlete in Hong Kong, especially when you’re not making significant progress. No awards, no recognition.
“We only have our passion to keep us going.”