July 11, 2005

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Horsing around

Now that Hong Kong has successfully become Beijing's stable for the 2008 Olympics the Hong Kong Jockey Club's not-so-hidden agenda is being laid bare. The Standard reports the HKJC is linking its plans to pay for the staging of the equestrian events to its betting reform plans now in front of Legco. As well as a change in basing tax on profit rather than turnover, the HKJC is hoping to increase the number of race meetings. This requires extra stables and facilities, which would be the happy result of the building for the Olympics. To be fair, most Olympics leave cities with white elephants that are never used again, so in this regard the HKJC deserve credit. It's just everything else that's wrong.

The SCMP today editorialises with "Winners and no losers from Olympic decision". Time for a fisking. At the end is a summary of everything that's wrong with hosting this event plus some photos and images of the Shatin racetrack and Sports Institute.

Hong Kong is forever striving for improvement and a way of bettering its international standing. The hosting of the equestrian events for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, with its potential to boost our city's image, is therefore quite a coup.
Given Hong Kong Tourism past efforts, there might be something to this. Perhaps there is a vast, hitherto unknown, market of Chinese tourists despereate to see men in top hats making their horses trot sideways.
Yet the mixed reaction here to the announcement made in Singapore last Thursday would seem to indicate otherwise. Given that the Olympics are the world's foremost sporting event and that international media attention will be at saturation level in the days leading up to and during the competition, such an attitude is baffling.
It's not just Hong Kong that's had a mixed reaction. The local Equestrian Federation split over the issue. The international equestrian association desperately did NOT want the event moved to Hong Kong but were overruled by the IOC. As for the idea that the international media will be bashing down Hong Kong's door to cover this event, at the last Olympics equestrian events represented 0.4% of tickets sold (a good proxy for interest in the event). Not so baffling, really.
Those expressing disquiet and even disappointment cite the $1.2 billion bill and the comparatively small financial return to the city, estimated at $350 million; the low profile and small spectator appeal of equestrian events; and how the Olympic preparation of Hong Kong's athletes will be disrupted by stables and other facilities being constructed on grounds where they presently train.
Last week I wrote about the Olympian maths that doesn't add up.
There has been dismay that the bulk of the cost, $800 million, will be footed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which is also the city's biggest charity provider. Welfare sector legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung wondered how the government could allow a charity organisation to spend "an exorbitant sum" on a sporting event amid the reduction of resources in most areas of social services.
Not just any sporting event, either. Hong Kong has a well-known love affair with horse racing. There is no interest in cross-country, dressage or show jumping. Otherwise we'd already have the facilities and events taking place.
With the Sports Institute in Sha Tin being the focus for dressage and showjumping, athletes will be moved to the Wu Kai Sha Youth Village at Ma On Shan. Officials overseeing their Olympic training are unhappy that their schedules will be disrupted and that they will be forced to use unfamiliar facilities - a problem that must be tackled.

After the Olympics, they will move back to their base, but almost certainly to smaller facilities. Negotiations between the government and Jockey Club look set to result in land on which stables are built being thereafter used by racehorses.

If the HKJC can find all this money, surely the Government can demand the HKJC fund a new Sports Institute on new grounds. Especially given the HKJC will end up with more land for the Shatin race track at the end of the exercise. They will effectively assume more land without even having to pay a land premium. It turns out Hong Kong's savviest property dealer is the HKJC, but that's not a surprise. Additionally an added cost of staging this trivial event is to displace Hong Kong's atheletes and their chances of winning medals for the SAR. If the HKJC ploughed even a fraction of this money into the athletes, you may well end up with a result that actually pleases Hong Kongers - medal winners.
Lastly, there is the question of equestrian events themselves. Hong Kong is familiar with horse racing, but not the sight of equines jumping barriers in a set pattern or the intricacies of dressage, in which riders put their mounts through a series of precise movements.

Rather than equestrian events, some would have preferred Hong Kong hosted sports for which our athletes have shown considerable aptitude, such as windsurfing or table tennis, or perhaps those guaranteed to pull in spectators, such as soccer or basketball. As it is, the argument goes, Hong Kong will be hosting a sport unknown to all but a handful of elite citizens and the benefits to the sporting community will be negligible. Hong Kong has never had an Olympic equestrian competitor, so public interest will be limited.

So many negative reasons would seem to indicate Hong Kong should feel hard done by with the announcement. But they miss the fact that we will benefit enormously from participating in the Olympics, no matter what the event.

Apart from the 32,000 competitors, officials and equestrian lovers who will come here, there will be a media entourage that will put Hong Kong's name before a global audience, beaming images of the city into countless homes.

Whoa there boy. Where does 32,000 come from? Let's be generous and say that number is plausible (which it isn't). If that many horse-y lovers are going to come to Honkers for this event, they are just displacing other tourists and even locals that will avoid the city during the event. On a net basis the additional visits are negligible, especially in a city that receives serveal million tourists a year. If the point of the exercise is to get images of Hong Kong beamed into people's homes, spend $800 million on tourism promotion (although that is likely also a waste - Habourfest, anyone?). For that much you could deliver millions of DVDs of Hong Kong direct to households around the world...and you'll likely get a far higher "hit" ratio. I don't think many are going to suddenly decide to see Hong Kong after viewing Shatin racetrack and the dressage.
That we have been chosen partly because of the high standard of our veterinarian and laboratory services will further add to our reputation. The world-class facilities provided will confirm our dedication to doing the best job possible.

Many benefits will result. More business, foreign companies and tourists will be attracted.

Really? Will executives move business here simply on the back of this event? Will Hong Kong's businesses suddenly receive more orders? Will the gates of HK Airport break under the pressure for the additional tourists? I didn't think so.
The mainland understandably attracts a great deal of international attention. That is certain to increase as the Beijing Games draw nearer. Hong Kong's securing of the equestrian events will, however, give us a slice of the action. It will remind the world that Hong Kong remains a great city. We must do our utmost to ensure they proceed flawlessly, thereby further boosting the rewards we will reap.
It will mean increased costs for marginal benefit. It is a boondoggle. Hong Kong's Government is also toeing the "raise the international status" line.

In summary, what's wrong with staging these events?

1. It is an event of little interest to Hong Kongers and the world.
2. The HKJC has an agenda in driving this event, but it is not for the benefit of the city as a whole.
3. The money the HKJC spends on this event could have been spent on welfare for Hong Kong's poor instead. Effectively Hong Kong's poor are paying for an elitist event they couldn't care less about.
4. This event will still cost the Government and thus taxpayers money. The costs of security, improved transport links and infrastructure will all be bourne by the Government.
5. The supposed boon to Hong Kong's international status is unlikely. This is a little watched event. The hoped for boom in tourism is in fact tiny compared to Hong Kong's regular tourism, and could prove detrimental should tourists who would otherwise come avoid the city during the event.
6. Even using the figures given, the event will cost at least $1.2 billion for a benefit of $350 million.

There's only one winner here, and it is the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

So you know what we're talking about, here's an image of the Shatin racetrack and the adjacent Sports Institute, courtesy of a reader.


And here's an image, courtesy The Standard, of the planned changes:


Other Reading

Naturally Hemlock chimes in with his $0.02:

The revenge of Tung Chee-hwa continues, as Hong Kong is saddled, as it were, with the 2008 Olympics equestrian events. As part of his evil plan to destroy our self-esteem and turn this once-proud city into a whining supplicant, the crop-haired one groveled for the supposed privilege of hosting part of the games as soon as Beijing won its bid. Yachting, tiddlywinks, horse-jumping – the more ridiculous the sport being begged for, the more pathetic and desperate Hong Kong would appear, much to the satisfaction of tofu-for-brains, such was his spite for this city of imperialists’ running dogs.

“The 2008 Olympic equestrian events is an once-in-a-life-time opportunity for Hong Kong to showcase the world our charisma,” says Secretary for Home Affairs and English Grammar Dr Patrick Ho. Intriguingly, we will also be lumbered with the Paralympics version of the event, in which blind, mentally handicapped and three-legged horses valiantly but vainly attempt to emulate the exploits of their fitter peers, blundering across the course while onlookers offer exaggerated applause and make embarrassing comments about how the sad spectacle is an inspiration to us all.

Ever since the age of three, when I came within an inch of a Paralympic status-inducing kick in the head from one, I have thought horses are best tethered to third-world ploughs or sliced and braised with robust sauces. Failing that, I am happy to see them galloping in circles, encouraging the lower orders to fritter away their pitiful incomes by gambling on races. If Hong Kong really has to host an Olympic event, it should be the ancient New Territories version of polo, in which members of competing village teams ride water buffalos and chase a pangolin carcass. Instead, we are to be invaded by thousands of pompous sports officials wearing loud blazers and straw boaters, waving clipboards and stopwatches and spending so much money here – and obviously our civil servants are correct in this forecast, or they wouldn’t be paid so much – that our economy will be propelled into the stratosphere and none of us will ever have to work again for our whole lives.

On re-reading this, I see I have written a sentence containing the words ‘Patrick Ho’ and ‘charisma’. I am sure stranger things have happened, though none springs to mind immediately.

My thanks to David Webb for his help with this post.

posted by Simon on 07.11.05 at 11:12 AM in the


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'There's only ONE winner here, and it is the Hong Kong Jockey Club.'

Perhaps not. It will save Beijing an estimated 1.1 billion yuan (HK$1.03 billion) in expenses, reported The Standard. So it really is a win-win situation, in a way.

posted by: dc on 07.11.05 at 02:25 PM [permalink]

Point taken, although someone mentioned Beijing might be hit for any shortfall.

posted by: Simon on 07.11.05 at 03:34 PM [permalink]

Grrrr...Such a long post and not even a link.

posted by: Gordon on 07.12.05 at 12:29 AM [permalink]

Gordon, the SCMP is unlinkable.

posted by: spacehunt on 07.12.05 at 02:47 PM [permalink]

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