Saturday, 22 August 2015

Murphy's Law: Team Hong Kong At The 1987 World Championships


Training in a tiny rink of 30 X 70 feet with a broken Zamboni, thirty year old Chi-Man Wong, seventeen year old Edith Poon, twenty three old Shuk-ching Ngai and nineteen year old Cheuk-fai Lai made history by becoming the first four skaters representing Hong Kong to compete at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1987 - but they didn't do it without causing quite a stir.


In her 1994 book "Figure Skating: A Celebration", Beverley Smith wrote that "a group of Hong Kong skaters at the 1987 world championship in Cincinnati, Ohio, had no coaches at all. Chi-Man Wong, at thirty, had been almost entirely self-taught until two years before the event, skating in Hong Kong's only ice rink... Edith Poon, Hong Kong's best female competitor, practiced the wrong compulsory figure until she was set straight the week before the competition. Hong Kong's ice dancers withdrew after they arrived with music for their free-dance that was only two minutes, fifteen seconds in length, when it was supposed to be four minutes. And the music for their original dance had the incorrect rhythm."


That poor ice dance team that Smith wrote of, Cheung Lai-yuk and Chan Chiu-keung, couldn't catch a break when Lai-yuk, on her first visit to North America, became quite ill after eating Western food. The fun for the Hong Kong skaters didn't end there. Edith Poon, a roller skater with only three months of training on the ice, floundered in the short program. Ngai and Lai, the pairs entry, were so out of their league in their short program to "Romeo And Juliet" that one judge gave the duo a 0.2 for technical merit. Their highest mark was one 2.7 for presentation. Most of their technical merit marks were around 0.8; their presentation marks around 1.8. 

In the March 11, 1987 edition of The Pittsburgh Press, the coach of the pair, Kathy Kitchner (an Australian who was teaching skating in Hong Kong) cited the incredibly small rink and deplorable ice conditions as reasons that her pair fared so poorly, saying "that she believed someone ran the Zamboni into a wall, which is why ice is smoothed by dumping buckets of water onto the surface each night." Keeping in mind that throughout skating's history, some of the world's best have competed on the Olympic and World stage on cut up ice, in downpours and blizzards and flooded ice in exactly the same manner, although the ice and training conditions would have certainly not been IDEAL for the Hong Kong skaters in 1987, I think it's pretty evident that subpar coaching and poor translations of ISU rulebooks played equal roles in this disastrous debut. In the March 10, 1987 edition of The Ottawa Citizen, Kitchner acknowledged, "When I came six months ago, they were teaching themselves. I'm here to support them, but I don't feel they are ready for this."

Despite the fact that Wong, Poon and Ngai and Lai all placed a distant last in their respective disciplines, the skaters from Hong Kong in 1987 weren't mocked. Instead, they were embraced by the crowd at the Riverfront Coliseum that March. The encouraging crowd gave them all loud ovations, littered the ice with flowers for the new kids on the block and American pairs coach Pieter Kollen took the struggling team of Ngai and Lai under his wing in practice, stating that "the fun of sports is more than the competition; it's the sportsmanship involved."  

Rather than go home and hide under the bed, skaters from Hong Kong went home and tried to rebuild... literally. Choosing to refrain from competing at the World Championships again until 1994, in the interim they built two more rinks (both in shopping malls) that were a third of the size of an Olympic rink. Still not quite grasping that rink size would absolutely play a difference when adapting programs to international competition, Hong Kong's pairs entry, Poon Hoi-san and Cheung Wai-tung, again finished last at the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan. Although skaters representing Hong Kong, including Ronald Lam (who was fourteenth at the 2015 World Championships) have enjoyed more promising results over the years since then, a skater or team from the country has yet to win a medal at a major international competition. Although progress is sometimes slow and steady with competitors from ANY developing skating country, I think we can all learn a lesson from the people of Cincinnati and the skaters from Hong Kong in 1987. Pointing and laughing only serves one purpose: being a jerk.

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