For the vast majority of people in Hong Kong, sports in any form, are still in limbo. Not everyone who actively love outdoor activities is involved in a form of recreational fun; many people’s livelihoods are directly tied to coaching, running gyms or being staff on an ever dwindling number of professional teams.
For those in the sports industry, the recent shutdowns have been devastating financially and emotionally.
The prolonged stoppage in sports has unfortunately seen many lose their jobs, and, for some, having a career in sports seems like a bleak and untenable idea. This feeling is made worse by viewing global sports abroad, which are now pretty much all back up and running.
For those who make a living in the sports media industry covering local sports, live sports events have all but dried up — there is little to nothing to report on.
Atom Cheung, radio sports presenter, said the luxury of interviewing athletes face-to-face was rare and that reporting on covid’s effect on local sports was now repetitive and like a vicious circle.
“For me, there’s less reporting to do. I report on how Covid is affecting the sporting scene more than what’s happening on the pitch. That could get boring. I haven’t done a face to face interview with an athlete for a very long time. I’ve done Zoom interviews, but that’s different from catching a person after a game or watching that person in action prior to an interview”
Jeff L, an avid sports lover, gave his views on how he felt the sporting shutdown was handled and if things could have been done differently.
He said perspective was important and that there were some justifiable reasons to close down sports facilities in the short-term.
“In order to answer this question with as much objectivity as possible, it is healthy to see this from two perspectives – the tightening of controls to limit the spread and the relaxing of controls in healthier times. In being honest with ourselves, the shutting down of sport and fitness makes logical scientific sense in an era of zero-Covid. It makes sense where the most vulnerable demographic are warming up to vaccination and we buy them time to get vaccinated. The short-term cost of limiting sports and fitness venues is justified.”
He went on to say that the sporting shutdowns have meant that large segments of the population’s emotional and mental health have suffered.
“Yet this situation becomes untenable when the needle on a vulnerable person’s vaccination has not shifted after one-year of vaccine availability due to unwillingness, fake news and poor family responsibility. The opportunity cost of continued shutdowns have led to large swathes of poor physical, mental and emotional health, and a severe reduction in social-awareness and etiquette. It is ironic that the mechanisms needed for improving immune health are continually jeopardized.
The issue now isn’t about buying time; it is personal and family-based responsibility and consequence. Is it right for the sporting community (and population) to continue stalling for those not exercising their right of responsibility to the greater public? Should we continue to bear the consequences of intentional inaction? Compassion and time can be bought – but this stage of pandemic policy needs to sunset, and people pushed into responsibility and consequence through exposure. Isn’t that how we learn as humans?”
Jeff stressed it was time for sports facilities to open up and for individuals to take their own responsibility in looking after themselves and others.
“In handling this situation better, the government is moving in the right direction with vaccine mandates, passes, and opening strategies, inline with the international community. Sporting events, venues and clubs need to fall inline too – allowing all participants to be fully responsible for their vaccinations, responsibilities and personal consequences. The grace period for intentional non-contributors needs to sunset and Hong Kong needs to bring back sport and open up again. The greater long-term strategy is a healthy country through medical, mental and social health, and not the unattainable Holy Grail of zero-Covid.”
Sports coaches in Hong Kong have borne the brunt of the sports closures. Some have sadly lost their jobs or decided to switch industries altogether; thus moving away from their passion to looking for any work to simply survive.
The Sports industry in HK, up until recently, offered many work opportunities. For those living in HK, the vast majority of people have heard the worsening economic statistics; the ‘human’ stories of how coaches are being affected is less known.
Jonathan Tam, a youth football coach, gave some insight into the struggles that both full-time and part-time coaches are dealing with.
“I am not certain what individual coaches are facing at a personal level. So I cannot speak for everyone. Speaking for myself, and from what I have seen or heard from our staff; We are all tired from waiting and staying indoors. Recently, the HK government announced a tentative start date for schools. It makes things a little easier when the sports coaches have a start date to aim for. Even though we all know the start date could change anytime.
The full-time coaches had been busy moving training online. One of the biggest challenges for football coaches is to keep players motivated. Adapting new ways and methods in training to keep young players interested can be very difficult. There are many limitations to what you can do online; the obvious one is space. Despite the limitations, the coaching team has been great in making things work!”
Coaching is already a hugely competitive industry and this means that part-time workers have had to take up any other work that comes their way; some have even left Hong Kong for pastures new.
“Our football programmes hire about 15-20 part-time coaches and assistant coaches. Naturally, the part-time coaches struggle with more. The main reason is lack of income since there are very few avenues for work. From one-on-one coaching in local parks, personal training sessions, and tutoring to food delivery. Many coaches have temporarily left the industry with some accepted permanent offers elsewhere. I know three part-time coaches from our programme had left Hong Kong for the UK in December last year.”
The lack of sports activities has also had an impact on children and their skill set and well-being. Tam elaborated that children can be fickle. This meant that long periods of not engaging in a sport can see a youngster’s interest in a sport diminish altogether, especially when handheld devices are ubiquitous.
“The lack of outdoor playing opportunities and spaces for exercise has encouraged children to go to tablets and mobile phones. It is too easy for children to pick up a device and play. It is energy efficient. To win this uphill battle against mobile devices. Coaches have to make sure sports experiences are fun, positive, challenging and rewarding at the same time. Otherwise, it is too easy for children to say they don’t enjoy playing sports anymore.
From a personal point of view, I think the lockdown hurts children’s and young players’ development, more so children around three to five years old. I witnessed weak motor abilities and fewer social interactions from children in sports lessons since the pandemic in 2019. This leads to lesser confidence in players and a lack of problem-solving skills being developed. The decline is especially apparent in younger children from 3-5 years old.”
An exit strategy for sports to open up is eagerly anticipated as there would be many financial, health and emotional benefits. Several different coaches shared what they thought would be the most logical way for sports to reopen in HK.
Tam felt that the professional game could have continued though, since most of the football grounds are public facilities, it was inevitable that the HKPL could not continue.
“It is a difficult question. I think individual sports governing bodies should take more responsibility for their sport(s) instead of relying on the government solely. Every sport is different. I think we must first accept that the “one magic pill that heals all” approach does not exist right now for sports in Hong Kong.
The coaches in our programme understand from previous experience that we will resume in small groups with masks and progressively to 11-aside (total of 22 players) with no masks. It works fine since we have a template from the last few lockdowns. Since now football people have the same understanding then it works fine for us.
I feel that the premier league could have stayed open with no spectators. However, with competitions, there has to be training for it. Most of the training grounds are LCSD owned, therefore there isn’t a lot of room for negotiations if clubs don’t own their training facilities. Fundamentally, I don’t think football in HK is independent enough to ensure the safety of coaches and players as well as to manage football facilities to minimize infection spread. Right now, it is clear that we are still heavily reliant on the HK government in the development and the operation of football. It is still very “top-down”.
Mark Hampson, a youth football coach, said some coaches have been able to work freelance though the revenue generated is not enough; also the subsidies and grants on offer have been too low to sustain the cost of living.
“We’re quite lucky in the sense that we (some coaches) have been able to undertake private one-on-one coaching as a freelancer. However, it has not really been the most sustainable method of generating income and supporting a livelihood. A lot of the coaches I know are complaining about a lack of support from the government.
To be very honest with you, a government subsidy of between HKD$ 5000-10,000 over the last three months, barely covers the financial costs of living in Hong Kong; let alone having to face parents wanting refunds and parents, you know, not committing to coaching anymore. So everything is unstable.”
The economic pressure and stresses have been too much for some coaches and some have changed industries, which in turn, is a loss for the coaching community.
“I have many friends and many coaches who decided to leave the industry altogether and try to look for other ways to generate revenue. I’m quite lucky where I have support from my partner and my family are able to help me find other opportunities to sustain myself and I use this time to improve my coaching by taking some courses and continuing my professional development.”
Hampson feels sports could open up straight away tomorrow if possible.
“To be very honest, I feel like we can open up tomorrow if the Hong Kong government allows us. As coaches, we have been doing this for the last two years. We had this small spell where were only allowed groups of four and we had a spell where we were only allowed groups of two.
So with football, we would be able to do small-sided games, open up the pitches and divide the pitches into small areas. We can also make sure everyone has the home leave app saved onto their phone and their vaccination records up to date.
I mean, it’s compulsory for coaches to be vaccinated, so surely it should be compulsory for children and players to be vaccinated if they wish to play football with us.
Football has been proven not to be an established and recognisable way of transmitting COVID-19. The fact in football in general; the distance between yourself and other athletes, generally within social distancing rules; it is not all the time that you are within that one meter two meter radius of people. In football, we can do this by doing passing drills. We can do shooting drills, where you maintain a good social distance.”
Hampson feels sports is imperative to health and one reason facilities should open up again.
“I remember when we were able to coach, the coaches regularly sanitised and cleaned all the equipment after a training session. So this is something that coaches are willing to do. We’re just kind of ready to get back out there. I’m sure after three years of waiting with COVID and the political issues in the past, parents and players are waiting for the government to open their eyes and see that sport is probably one of the ways to get out of this pandemic. If we’re all exercising and being healthier, surely then, we are able to fight this virus stronger.”
The children of Hong Kong have undergone many challenges and the lack of physical activity has been the most impactful and the long-term effects could be incredibly negative.
“The impact of the lack of outdoor play for children and players is massive. Nowadays, Hong Kong is lacking many places and opportunities for children to better themselves. Hong Kong is really struggling now with mental health well-being and social needs of children; primary school children are missing out on the key areas of their life where they are able to practice their gross motor skills and fundamental movement skills. These skills are not just for sport but for life in general.
How many kids nowadays have not been able to leave the house, not been able to run around, jump and play? It’s quite concerning for many aspects of a child’s development, when in the future, we compare the children and players in Hong Kong, to the rest of the world.
One thing that really surprised me is that in the UK during lockdown, they hired celebrities and professional players to host fitness classes on free public TV to still try and get people to move.
But we don’t seem to see anything like this in Hong Kong. There are many excuses for why: they don’t have the lack of space; Hong Kong doesn’t have the resources; We have people who are too afraid and not willing to take part, etc. Though, I think the government has made this decision for us, we haven’t been given the opportunity to try.”
All football (and most sports) are on hold and Hampson said this could just stop the development of the HK game. Thus, an already wide gap between Hong Kong football and the rest of the world will only widen further.
“In terms of pure football, if you do not play for four years then regression is just going to kick in, players are going to be weaker. Players’ football IQ will not develop at the same rate as their global counterparts. Hong Kong already struggles to compete with other European and Asian countries in terms of creating a strong and adaptive football team.”
The HKPL is already in a precarious position and the constant stop start will mean potential players will lose interest as they see no future, hard won HK club fans will look to other interests and potential sponsors will simply shy away from a ‘product’ which sometimes is unsellable.
“Our professional HK league has been postponed and canceled again so what kind of messages does that show to players. If the professional league is not able to continue then why would a child believe that it’s an opportunity for them to play football in Hong Kong, especially if no one else is able to?
Overall I think it’s more than a mental impact. Social interaction will face the most negative impact in terms of child and football play. Of course, we just want children to be outside enjoying themselves. I think this is something that the government needs to rectify as soon as possible.”
Oskar Ho, another football coach, gave his views on the impact of the lack of outdoor play for children and how this dearth of any activity could affect their sporting skill set.
“The lack of physical development in overall fitness and refined movements are obvious skills that will have been difficult to be acquired during the lack of outdoor play. I’m sure that many sports organizations would have seen their development plans slowed down as online classes still can’t entirely compensate for in person training.”
However, I believe that soft skills will have taken an even bigger hit during this lockdown. Being stuck at home and not being able to be outside limits the social interaction opportunities for children, especially those at a younger age. Sporting leaders will need to strategize on how to re-integrate teamwork and socialization wherever possible.”
Ho said that when sports re–opened in HK; safety should be a priority as people will be more willing to partake if they know that all risks have been minimised.
“The world has shown many ways of bringing back sports after Covid. Nevertheless safety will always always be a top priority for any sport. Hence, vaccination and sanitation must be tracked to ensure that we are building confidence when returning to being active next to one another. Furthermore, building mental strength should be important for coaches too – getting back to playing sports will not be a smooth process so athletes of all ages must remain adaptable and be resilient.”
Some say Hong Kong does not have a strong sports culture though there are many who do love sports in all forms and their voices and views should have a wider platform.
Hong Kong Football cannot afford to regress any further.