Theophilus Chan Ming-Tai stared straight ahead, his focus precisely 40 metres into the distance. He flashed a quick smile to the camera then huffed out breath. As the crowd fell silent, he crouched into position and took off sprinting. He leapt 7.79 metres from the take-off board, catapulting the Hong Kong record holder to 17th place in the long jump at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

A month later, 22-year old Chan was sitting in his Intermediate Financial Accounting II class at the University of Hong Kong.

Chan is one of a rare breed in Hong Kong: a full-time athlete and full-time student. “The Olympics gave me the confidence that pursuing an athletic career is actually possible,” said Chan, who believes he is experiencing “the happiest and luckiest period” of his life.

After a legendary jump of 7.64m in his final year of secondary school, which shattered the Hong Kong record, he decided to give his coach’s long-term “8-metre plan” a try, to see where his limits lay. This journey took him to more intensive training, and culminated in a contract as a full-time elite athlete in September 2015, as he began his third year of undergraduate studies.

Theophilus Chan Ming-tai
Theophilus Chan Ming-tai’s devotion to his sport requires him to manage and schedule his academic life wisely. Photo: Delia von Pflug

The development of elite sports is a major focus of the Hong Kong government’s sports policy. Established in 2004 under the Home Affairs Bureau, the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI), has seen its expenditure almost triple since 2005, to HK$463 million dollars in 2015.

It offers elite sports training and support to athletes at its state-of-the-art elite sports training centre in Fo Tan.

HKSI pays in full for Chan’s university tuition fees, an element of HKSI’s “dual-career model”, which aims to allow full-time professional sportsmen and women to pursue their educational and athletic goals simultaneously.

He also gets free lodging and daily meals at the Institute, and a monthly income determined by his level of performance, which for senior elite athletes can range from HK$5,980 a month to HK$33,040 a month.

Dr. Anthony Giorgi, head athletics coach at HKSI, believes that this dual pathway is ideal, with the two components serving as “complementary distractions”.

“Life isn’t about just doing one thing,” Giorgi says. The balance in this lifestyle teaches one not to waste time. He also points out a useful coincidence of timing: the end of the school year in most countries comes in April or May, coinciding with the start of the competition season.

Hong Kong Sports Institute
The entrance of Hong Kong Sports Institute in Fo Tan. Photo:

Chan undertakes three courses per semester, two less than his peers, which amounts to 36 credits per year, as he applied for “credit underload”, thereby lengthening his degree to six years and satisfying the rule that full-time athletes must not spend more than 10 hours a week at school.

The allocation of time between training and school sometimes causes controversy. In 2015, two former students of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill filed a lawsuit against the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association for compromising their educational opportunities and future job prospects.

The lawsuit alleged that the athletes were enrolled in “sham paper classes” that required neither attendance nor much assessment. The classes were not taught by a faculty member, but ensured a student athlete would get grades good enough to maintain competition eligibility while spending more time on training.

Chan, who hopes to graduate with at least second-class honours, believes he is well-immersed in his academic studies. Although he missed the opportunity of an exchange semester at a university overseas, he interned at a social venture as part of a business course.

He is not given any special concessions in individual courses; an absence from a quiz in an introductory-level Geography class meant a make-up essay of 3,000 words.

Theophilus Chan Ming-tai
Theophilus Chan Ming-tai. Photo: Delia von Pflug.

Conscious of the fact that few of those who pursue full-time sporting careers will be able to make a living without a supplementary income, Giorgi emphasizes the importance of elite athletes preparing for later life by combining training with vocational or higher education.

Yiu Yu-kei, the head of the Physical Education Department at St. Margaret’s Co-Educational English Secondary and Primary School for the past 12 years, says the pursuit of sport is complementary to academic progress.

“Like how great achievements in sport increases a student’s chances to get in a university, the balance must be there, you cannot just have one or the other.” he says.

Zipped up in his school’s swimming team jacket as he watches secondary one students in their morning swim class, Yiu notes that becoming a professional athlete is more and more seen as a viable career option in Hong Kong.

“The career pathways available for an athlete after he retires from the sport have multiplied” Yiu says. Complementing that is enhanced media exposure of professional athletes, such as world-class boxer Rex Tso Sing-yu and Hong Kong’s Flag Bearer at the Rio Olympics, famed swimmer Stephanie Au Hoi-shun.

Swimmer Stephanie Au Hoi-shun.
Swimmer Stephanie Au Hoi-shun. Photo: YouTube screenshot, via Cal Bears.

Despite this, he does not perceive great changes in traditional attitudes of parents towards elite sports. He meets plenty of parents who prefer their children to do sports simply at an amateur level.

Yet as a teacher, he fulfils his role by actively promoting sports. “In my position I try to nurture young talents by recommending them to more experienced and established coaches outside of school. By offering resources such as full scholarships, reimbursement for transportation, and free academic tutoring to such kids, we try to motivate the student and encourage the parent.”

Delia von Pflug is a Hongkonger, born and raised, who currently studies Journalism at the University of Hong Kong. She is polishing her skills as a polyglot, and loves reading in-depth features about the universal language of sports.