What help do Hong Kong’s retired athletes get to adapt to life after sport?
Reporter: Jennifer Xu
You have spent most of your days in gruelling training. You have sacrificed time you could have spent with friends, family or studying. You may not have developed many social skills. Now, as others enter the most productive phases of their careers, you are about to retire. You are anxious about your life. You do not know what to do or how to find a job. This is a typical scenario for a Hong Kong athlete who is retiring from sport.
To help retired athletes adapt to life after competitive sport, the Hong Kong government has offered some help. Before 2008, this help consisted of funds to support further study for certificate, diploma or degree courses offered by local or overseas education institutes. There were also schemes like the Elite Athletes Education Subsidy and Elite Athletes Tutorial Support, which also provided assistance for study.However, only retired athletes of 14 designated “elite sports” were eligible to apply. The funds were administered by the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI).
The situation changed in 2008 when the government gave HK$11 million , with HK$8.5 million directly go for helping retired athletes, to the Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong to launch the Hong Kong Athletes Career & Education Programme (HKACEP). Unlike the previous schemes, the programme covers all affiliated members of National Sports Associations’ athletes. It aims to help retired athletes to return to study and to find jobs.
The sportsmen and women can apply to enrol on an online English course, take language enrichment programmes or apply for scholarships for further study. Up till now, around 170 retired athletes have benefited from the programme. However, only 18 have found work through the programme. Most of them have received education assistance.
While there are no restrictions on the sports that applicants have competed in, they do have to satisfy other requirements and some athletes are concerned these may be too stringent.
Tong Siu-man, a bronze medallist of double sculls at the 2009 East Asian Games, is now a full-time coach of the Hong Kong, China Rowing Association. Tong succeeded in making an application for some courses through the programme. But while she finds the programme helpful, she believes the benchmarks for eligibility are set too high to help the majority of retired athletes.
In order to qualify, applicants should either place at least eighth in the Olympic Games (Summer or Winter) or be medallists at World Championships, Asian Games (Summer or Winter), Asian Championship competitions, National Games, World University Games or East Asian Games.
Yet, in the 2009 East Asian Games, 110 of 438 Hong Kong athletes were medallists. Only seven Hong Kong athletes ranked eighth or higher in the 2008 Olympic Games.
Chan Ka-man, the 2010 Asian Games bronze medal holder in the women’s 61 kg karate competition, agrees with Tong. She says that based on the requirements, nearly two-thirds of the members of the Karatedo Federation of Hong Kong are ineligible for the programme.
However, Mak Pui-hin, a retired competitive squash player takes a different view. She says that Hong Kong athletes can be divided into five classes in a pyramid. Those at the bottom of the pyramid will realize they are unable to climb up after a few years of training and competition. They will withdraw from the team and take care of themselves. Those who remain in the Hong Kong Team are either at the top of the pyramid or have the ability to become top athletes.
Mak says it is easy for athletes in this group to qualify for the programme. For example, only nine countries participate in the East Asian Games, so the competition among athletes is not very keen. Besides, there are also some team events. Reserve team members also get medals if their team wins in an event.
Despite Mak’s optimism, some athletes are pessimistic about their chances. A high jumper, who prefers to remain anonymous, plans to retire in 2012. To date, he does not have any distinguished achievements in
major competitions like the World Championships.
“How many Hong Kong athletes are able to participate in international competitions?” he says. “The eligibility benchmarks of the programme are over-ambitious.”
He stresses that most medallists of major competitions like the East Asian Games do not require immediate help when they retire, as the competitions give them prize money. With the prize money, they can at least manage to lead their lives. He believes those who need the most help are the athletes who cannot get a medal in the competitions and are not good at study. They cannot go back to school once they retire.
Tam Kwok-kuen, a korfball player, agrees. Tam says he does not expect to get any help from the government after he retires because korfball is not a popular sport in Hong Kong. He says the eligibility benchmarks of the programme imply that the Hong Kong government does not support sports development wholeheartedly.
“The Hong Kong government does not support sports, but medals!” he says. “When you are a medallist, you will get help from the government. The programme gives the illusion that everyone can get help.”
Sam Wong Tak-sum, the manager of HKACEP and a former Hong Kong Olympic windsurfer, explains why the benchmarks are set in this way.
He says that although the government gave the programme HK$8.5 million in 2008, those running it do not know if or when the government will give them further funds. So, with limited resources and a desire to help as many retired athletes as possible, the eligibility benchmarks are linked to the number of years an applicant has spent in the squad and their achievements.
Wong says that although some athletes cannot benefit from the programme, they will still have learnt a lot through practising their sport competitively – like discipline and punctuality. Wong believes these qualities help former athletes to get on in society after their retirement.
However, he admits that HKACEP has room for improvement in helping those athletes who may not qualify for the programme.
Another great concern to retired athletes is whether the programme can help them to find a suitable job and whether they are competitive enough in the job selection process.
Wong says the programme invites and persuades companies to hire recently retired athletes. It also helps applicants to analyse their strengths, weaknesses and their needs. Staff will then try to match applicants with suitable jobs and refer them for interviews. Retired athletes may be given priority over other applicants in obtaining an interview but whether they are ultimately hired depends on the company.
Wong stresses retired athletes have qualities that are particularly attractive to employers. For instance, athletes need to work in a team, so they have to know how to communicate with other team members. They are good team players and hard workers.
To date, around 15 companies have signed up for the scheme. Cheng Ka-ho, a retired Wushu athlete, got a job through the programme as a community service officer with Hopewell Holdings Limited.
He says the programme does help retired athletes to find suitable jobs. In the long term, he believes this could give athletes confidence about their retirement, helping them to focus better on their training.
Lobo Louie Hung-tak, associate professor of the department of physical education at the Hong Kong Baptist University, conducts research on social issues in sports and recreation. He says that whether a company wants to employ retired athletes depends on the background of the employers and companies. If an employer is also a retired athlete or the company has its own athletic clubs, they will be more likely to hire retired athletes.
Despite Sam Wong’s evaluation of the qualities of retired athletes, Louie says they do not enjoy many advantages over other candidates in the job selection process. Louie explains this is because the sports atmosphere in Hong Kong is not strong. The public tends to forget the achievements of even medallists in major competitions after a short while. “Not many companies will employ retired athletes particularly,” he says.
In order to become more competitive in the job market, Louie says retired athletes need to equip themselves with better language skills and knowledge. They need to continue their studies after retirement.
On the whole, Louie believes the HKACEP is a good starting point in helping retired athletes because it can help them to find suitable jobs. The education assistance offered by the programme can also help former sportsmen and women to broaden their knowledge. He stresses the online language courses provided are particularly useful in helping them to raise their language standards.
Although the eligibility benchmarks of the programme are criticised for being too stringent, Louie argues this may be necessary to build up the reputation of the scheme. He explains that if the eligibility benchmarks are set too low, the programme might inadvertently refer some lazy applicants, which would hurt the programme’s standing with employers. He believes the programme will cover more and more retired athletes once it establishes its reputation.
However, he stresses that retired athletes should not wait for help from the government. Instead, they need to prepare for their retirement while they are still competing. “Athletes should start equipping themselves with better language and social skills long before retirement. They should not wait until they retire to start doing all these things,” he says.