13 December 2018

Time to give our athletes the support they deserve

Even though cyclist Sarah Lee failed to win any medal at the Rio Olympics, the people of Hong Kong are very proud of her.

They admired her untiring efforts, dogged perseverance and great sportsmanship despite bad luck and injuries.

To many of them, she is an Olympic champion, perhaps comparable to Olympic windsurfing gold medalist Lee Lai-shan.

Sarah Lee’s story shows that a medal is not the only measure of athletic achievement and that sports are more than just mass entertainment.

Sports can strenthen social bonds and enhance the sense of belonging, something that an increasingly polarized society like Hong Kong badly needs.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Hong Kong athletes have proven themselves in countless international competitions, they are still unable to get decent government support.

Their lives as professional athletes haven’t seen much improvement in the past 20 years or so.

In fact, being a full-time professional athlete in Hong Kong is tough going.

Lack of government funding means they have to deal with inadequate training facilities and struggle from paycheck to paycheck.

A lot of young athletes from working-class families are forced into odd jobs to pay the rent and bills.

As far as retired athletes are concerned — apart from those who were lucky enough to land a job as coaches with the Hong Kong Sports Institute or some sports associations — many of them face an uncertain future. Many feel let down by society.

Two years ago,  Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the reason sports development is not a top government priority is that the sports sector “hasn’t made any economic contribution”.

Really? Singapore’s experience can help dispel that notion.

Over the past decade, the city state has poured tens of millions of dollars into sports. The concerted efforts paid off at the Rio Olympics

Joseph Schooling beat swimming legend Michael Phelps to win the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter butterfly, the first ever Olympic gold medal in the country’s history.

The reason Singapore — our prime competitor and an international financial hub which is as economically driven as us — has taken great pains to develop sports is that its leaders recognize their enormous social and economic potential.

The sports industry is a multibillion-dollar business. The Singaporean government knows that but apparently, our own government does not.

The issue is compounded by the fact that many Hong Kong parents have doubts about letting their children pursue a career in sports.

Many parents think that being an athlete can’t guarantee a decent income. They prefer their sons and daughters to be lawyers or doctors.

Such old-fashioned mindset stands in the way of our sports development.

As Sarah Lee put it during an interview, the sense of satisfaction and glory you get as an athlete is priceless.

It’s time our government ditched its tunnel vision and adopted a new approach to sports development.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 19

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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