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Published: 10:12, October 20, 2021 | Updated: 10:13, October 20, 2021
Hong Kong eager for more sporting success
By Chloe Xu in Hong Kong
Published:10:12, October 20, 2021 Updated:10:13, October 20, 2021 By Chloe Xu in Hong Kong

Siobhan Haughey, a two-time silver-winning swimmer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, competes during a match. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

After years of hard work, 14-year-old Uhi Viviena Marise finally became a member of the Hong Kong swimming team, but this achievement was far from easy.

With a father from New Zealand and a mother from Hong Kong, she started swimming lessons when she was 3, but her parents never expected her to progress so well.

They merely wanted her to become stronger and a proficient swimmer, a skill that could be useful in the future. However, their daughter has a passion for swimming and is now just one step away from the top level of the sports pyramid in Hong Kong.

"Swimming has always been my love, rather than studying," the teenager said, adding that her parents had no problem with her priorities.

She used to train from 5:30 am to 7 am and then went to school until 4:30 pm. After class she returned to the pool for another two-and-a-half hours' training, before rushing off to do her homework, which she had to complete quickly in order to make an early start the next day.

However, since starting middle school, she has gradually realized the importance of studying and has tried to catch up with her academic work due to the upcoming Junior Secondary Education Assessment and the Diploma of Secondary Education Examination-her entry ticket to college.

Uhi was thrilled when she learned she had won a place on the city's swimming team, but knew this was just the start of the next stage of the journey to becoming a professional athlete.

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Her idol is newly crowned Olympic silver medalist Siobhan Haughey, with whom she has much in common, as Haughey, who is half Irish and half Chinese, was also born in Hong Kong.

Silver medalist Hong Kong's Siobhan Bernadette Haughey poses with her medal after the final of the women's 100m freestyle swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Uhi is about 1.70 meters tall, which gives her a physical advantage in swimming, while Haughey, 23, is also tall and has been dubbed the "mixed-race mermaid".

When Uhi set out to follow Haughey in representing Hong Kong, she knew she faced a number of challenges.

Ronnie Wong Man-chiu, president of the Hong Kong China Swimming Association, likens the city's sports system to a pyramid, with the base occupied by numerous sports enthusiasts, and the center by those who have the potential and aspiration to take up sports professionally. First-class athletes are at the top of the pyramid

For example, when the pandemic struck early last year, the Hong Kong Open Swimming Championships, which offer the chance of representing the city at the sport-had to be called off.

Those with ambitions of making it on to the team usually have to rank in the top three at these championships, which are held two to three times a year, but which only resumed in August, according to Uhi's swimming coach, Wu Kim-ho.

Immediately before the onset of the pandemic, Uhi performed a personal best, finishing second in a total field of about 50 swimmers in another local 100 meters freestyle event in January last year, recording a time of 1 min 01:93 sec.

Still, she has a long way to go if she wants to surpass Haughey, who set an Asian record for this event by finishing in 52.27 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer.

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But Uhi's coach and her swimming club-the Hoi Tin Athletic Association-believe her competition results and performances stand her in good stead, so they applied to the Hong Kong China Swimming Association for her to represent the city.

The association referred the application to the Hong Kong Sports Institute, or HKSI, which examined it. Even though Uhi had not been able to take part in the open championships, she was considered eligible to join the city's swimming team. Since then, she has trained at the institute.

Training system

Uhi is one of many competitors close to making it to the top who are placed at the head of Hong Kong's athlete training system.

Ronnie Wong Man-chiu, president of the Hong Kong China Swimming Association, likens the city's sports system to a pyramid, with the base occupied by numerous sports enthusiasts, and the center by those who have the potential and aspiration to take up sports professionally. First-class athletes are at the top of the pyramid.

Wong said Hong Kong has strong center and bottom layers of the pyramid to support the top tier through recruiting and training talent for sports such as swimming.

But he added that the city's sports development needs an integrated pyramid, with those at the top winning medals in international competitions, and those in the center and at the bottom laying a solid foundation for such success.

"The national sporting associations cover the middle and bottom layers of this pyramid, while the HKSI is in charge of the top," Wong said.

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The future looks bright, at least for swimming, but gaps may appear in the pyramid at some point if there is not enough support, Wong said.

At Tokyo 2020, the Hong Kong delegation won six medals-the city's best performance.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced new measures to support sports development at a regular press briefing against a special stage backdrop themed "Hong Kong Athletes, Our Pride", on Aug 10, 2021. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Following this success, in August, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced five new measures to further boost sports in the city.

The key to Hong Kong athletes improving their skills and winning more medals in top competitions is to offer them the chance to take part in more international or regional events. This principle applies in particular to elite athletes such as (Siobhan) Haughey and also to young trainees at the center of the pyramid.

Ronnie Wong Man-chiu, president of the Hong Kong China Swimming Association

The measures include a HK$990 million ($128.60 million) fund for the HKSI to build a new training facility, which is expected to open in 2024, and an allocation of HK$150 million, together with another HK$150 million from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, to set up a HK$300 million fund for research and medical support for sports and to buy new equipment for elite athletes.

Wong said he hoped the government could also pay more attention to the center and bottom layers of the pyramid, adding, "The allocation of resources is clearly skewed toward the HKSI."

He said the HKSI may deserve more investment, as it is responsible for training and looking after Hong Kong's elite athletes, but other sports organizations also need more financial and facility support to promote local sports development.

"The key to Hong Kong athletes improving their skills and winning more medals in top competitions is to offer them the chance to take part in more international or regional events. This principle applies in particular to elite athletes such as Haughey and also to young trainees at the center of the pyramid," Wong said.

The swimming association or other organizations could take trainees to compete on the Chinese mainland or overseas, but only if the government can provide sufficient financial support, Wong added.

Venues closed

During the pandemic, the Hong Kong government closed most sports venues in the city to prevent the virus spreading, with many professional swimming teams losing the chance to train, Wong said.

Wu, Uhi's coach, said most swimming pools in the city were closed and he had to take trainees to beaches. However, the beaches were then locked down, so the trainees had to practice their swimming strokes on land.

"There's something we call the 'sense of water', and practicing on land is certainly way different from jumping into the water, but given the situation at the time, this was the only way", Wu said.

"Most local swimming teams comprise disciplined athletes, which means they can be easily traced and can take nucleic acid tests together", Wu said. He added that although he understood the Hong Kong government's fears about the pandemic, the arrangements should have been more flexible and fairer.

(Left to right) Hong Kong's Doo Hoi-kem, Hong Kong's Lee Ho-ching, and Hong Kong's Minnie Soo Wai-yam pose on the podium with their bronze medals after the women's team final table tennis match at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on August 5, 2021. (JUNG YEON-JE / AFP)

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics raised swimming's profile, with Haughey winning silver medals in the women's 100 meters and 200 meters freestyle events, becoming the first Hong Kong athlete to win two medals at an Olympics.

Wong is confident that Haughey will enjoy success at the next summer Olympics in Paris in 2024.

The Hong Kong China Swimming Association is one of the national sports associations, or NSAs-local governing bodies responsible for the promotion and development of their respective sports in the city.

As president of the association, which is involved in athlete selection and discussing strategies for Olympic swimming events, Wong paid close attention to Haughey's training.

He said she could have shone at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, but after discussions with the HKSI's head swimming coach and with Haughey, the swimmer decided not to compete, focusing instead on Tokyo 2020.

However, Hong Kong's hopes of winning more medals do not rest solely with Haughey.

Wong said: "We took three relay teams to the Olympics in Tokyo. These are swimmers who got through the trials and qualified for the Games. This number of teams is unprecedented (for a city) and all of them have the potential to win medals at the next Olympics."

He added that he believes the overall level of the Hong Kong swimming team has greatly improved.

Wong also said Hong Kong now has 44 public swimming pools and 42 public beaches, making swimming a relatively accessible sport for residents.

Grace Lau Mo-sheung of Hong Kong competes in the ranking round of the women's kata for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Aug 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (VINCENT THIAN/AP)

Fund established

The Hong Kong government has invested in and professionalized sports, Wong added. For example, in 2012, it established the Elite Athletes Development Fund to provide financial support to the HKSI, which was set up to train and support elite athletes.

According to the HKSI's latest annual report, it received total funding of HK$664.5 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Some HK$112.1 million of this was direct financial assistance for elite athletes, with the remainder allocated to train these competitors and for operational expenditure.

Meanwhile, the government and the HKSI also provide former athletes with career guidance.

Wong believes that all these measures will ease public concern that athletes cannot support themselves financially.

On Oct 6, Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, announced in the last Policy Address of her current term the plan of a Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau to consolidate the city's strengths in these fields.

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Wong said this is the most logical move made in the best interest of these sectors.

He added that the Olympics are good examples of how "chemistry" works in combining culture and sports.

Large crowds could be drawn to Hong Kong if the city held regular international sports and cultural events, which would benefit the local tourism industry, he added.

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