April 22, 2024
Investment

Investment in Hong Kong or wasted billions? Inside the city’s HK$7 billion publicly funded hunt for sporting gold


Asked last month whether rising investment came with more responsibility to achieve better results, an HKSI spokesperson initially sent the Post a verbatim chunk of promotional text about musculoskeletal evaluations.

Siobhan Haughey collects one of her six swimming medals at this year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou. Photo: AP

If penetrating the protective cloak around the institute’s Fo Tan campus happens infrequently, rarer still is access to the poster girls and boys of the city’s public funding of sport, who earn up to HK$50,000 a month in grants.

Countless requests by the Post to speak to star swimmer Siobhan Haughey, including three since her medal-laden autumn, have been rejected or ignored.

Happy to speak, however, was the HKSI’s outgoing chief executive Trisha Leahy – even if her utterances included stating what the paying public were not going to be told. The institute’s review of the Asian Games is to remain confidential.

Government sets criteria, HKSI says

Leahy described Hong Kong’s best Asiad of 53 podium finishes as “absolutely spectacular”, adding that it was “not just the number of medals but the fact they were across a spread of sports, where we had not previously had success”.

She insisted even more investment was needed to maintain momentum.

“We have to keep ahead of the curve, and our message to the government is we need to keep the investment to keep going forward,” said Leahy, who will be succeeded on January 1 by Tony Choi, the deputy chief executive.

Asked about funding criteria, she added: “That is out of our orbit. That is the government.

“The Elite Sports Committee and Sports Commission are the policymakers. We implement that policy, and they regularly review it.”

The criteria for sports to receive HKSI funding are largely unchanged since 2005, bar an expansion to three funding tiers in 2013. The government’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau (CSTB) told the Post the system had been reviewed after every Olympics.

It declined to discuss whether the criteria were still fit for purpose.

The Hong Kong Sports Institute in Fotan is to receive a further cash injection in the coming year. Photo: Winson Wong

Further questions were put to the HKSI, on whether underperforming sports that kept their funding should face new criteria, and whether Hong Kong athletes who exceeded expectations should have the bar raised.

The institute was also asked what was being done by sports failing to develop young athletes capable of competing regionally, let alone globally – gymnastics and track and field being two.

It said the medal tally in Hangzhou proved broadly “that our direction and strategy are on track”.

As for improvement and underperformance, it replied: “The government makes use of the Elite Vote Support System (EVSS) in evaluating and selecting high performance sports for support. The mechanism of the EVSS ensures the continuous development of the selected high performance.”

Can Hong Kong maintain Asian Games success? That is the HK$7 billion question

Hong Kong set up its system after studying the UK’s funding model and the Australian Institute of Sport.

Tier A* and Tier A status guarantee holistic HKSI support, including elite training facilities, coaching and sports science. Athletes on these programmes receive monthly grants of HK$44,500 to HK$50,000, and HK$32,720 to HK$38,540, respectively. Those will remain unchanged for 2024-25.

Should sports keep their funding?

Andrew Wright, the triathlon head coach, identified some scope for complacency back when he was still competing. In 2014, after a barren Asian Games for Hong Kong’s triathletes, he said he “highly regretted” his own eighth place at the 2010 Asiad, because it “was responsible for retaining the funding”.

Wright felt the cash injection sustained a culture of supporting one leading athlete whose results were sufficient to earn a whole sport’s government handout, while absolving triathlon officials of responsibility for wider performances.

Today, Wright advocates greater accountability, because “this is elite sport, not a jobs programme”.

Since the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the government has evaluated the sports, scoring mechanism and criteria, and extended the status of all Tier A*, Tier A and Tier B sports until March 2025.

In December 2022, the Sports Commission cited as the reason “the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on athletes taking part in major international Games”.

Some athletes told the Post off the record during the latter part of the pandemic that they had been advised by staff at the HKSI – effectively their employer – not to leave the city to compete.

The HKSI has been approached to comment on this.

Hindered also by Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules for incoming travellers, some taxpayer-funded athletes were missing international competitions long after global sport returned to normal, costing them world ranking points, career momentum and opportunities to deliver value for the investment in them.

Even with Marco Fu Ka-chun in its ranks, cue sports as a whole failed to meet its criteria. Photo: World Snooker Tour
A stay of execution was handed to cue sports, meanwhile, when a planned review was pushed back following the postponement of the Asian Games. Cue sports kept its Tier A funding despite failing to meet the criteria and not being involved in the Asiad.

Besides featuring in Olympic or Asian Games over the longer term, sports must earn points within four-year cycles for performances, such as either qualifying for an Olympics, medalling at a world championships or Asian Games, or winning gold at a National Games.

Two of Hong Kong’s eight golds in Hangzhou came from Haughey, whose total of six medals masked a moderate return from the city’s swimmers. Other blue riband sports, athletics and gymnastics, had only the bronze for long-jumper Tiffany Yue Nga-yan between them.

Leahy said Hong Kong was adopting a “relative success model” when planning for the Paris Olympics. She refused to put a number on the medals targeted, but said: “We are confident the athletes are going to perform well, according to their different levels.

“The first target is qualification, then reaching the top eight is a major benchmark, because otherwise you have no podium chance. So many parameters come into winning medals.”

Hong Kong’s talent shortages

Athletics has returned one bronze from each of the past three Asian Games, and gymnastics one gold in both 2014 and 2018.

The HKSI said talent shortages for some sports were matters for individual governing bodies.

Tiffany Yue’s long jump bronze was Hong Kong’s only track and field medal at this year’s Asian Games. Photo: Reuters

A spokesperson said: “Athletes’ development pathways typically begin with the feeder systems and training programmes provided by respective national sports associations. Under their recommendations, young sports talents may become HKSI scholarship athletes.”

Leahy added: “That [athletics and gymnastics results] is part of the ongoing development and review process. We work closely with the governing bodies – they are responsible for making sure they have a pipeline of athletes coming into the institute; we are responsible for trying to improve them.

“But athletics and gymnastics – and swimming – are fundamental physical movements. When we think about physical literacy, and young children learning the basic fundamentals of movement, we think of gymnastics, track and field, and swimming.

“I know the relevant governing bodies are actively looking at how they can better develop, and we will support them any way we can.”

Additional reporting by Mike Chan



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