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Proof is in the medals

Published on Friday, 29 Apr 2011
Trisha Leahy
Chief executive, Hong Kong Sports Institute
Photo: Gary Mak

Like most top executives, Trisha Leahy expects her performance to be scrutinised. But unlike others who are assessed primarily by sales revenue, share price or efficiency, she knows that people will ultimately judge her by just one measure: medals.

That is because, as chief executive of the Hong Kong Sports Institute, Leahy oversees the training and support programmes designed to put elite local athletes on the podium at the major multisports games.

And, with a record tally of 40 medals from last year's Asian Games, and international counterparts increasingly keen to learn from Hong Kong's system, it is clear that the present formula is getting results.

"The role of sports in our society and getting a medal goes beyond the cost," says Leahy, who has a PhD in psychology. She has advised competitors at the Sydney Olympic Games when working at the Australian Institute of Sport. "It helps to develop national identity. [It] is a public health tool and builds community spirit so sports policy is a priority for governments around the world."

Given this, one of her own priorities is to create different pathways, allowing talented youngsters to fulfil their sporting potential, while not missing out in other areas. Reaching elite level and winning medals needs close to full-time training - it is estimated that it takes 10,000 hours' practice to approach international standards in a chosen sport - but any athlete's career is short.

The institute is therefore co-ordinating with colleges, universities and employers to introduce more flexibility for those in further education and to ease the transition of high-performance athletes into the next stage of their careers.

"The challenge is to facilitate alternatives and have more flexible education pathways," says Leahy, who is familiar with the traditional views and ambitions of parents in Hong Kong. "The ideal is to make systemic change at university and high school level [to give time for coursework and training]. Then we can have an answer for parents who don't want to `sacrifice' their child's academic development for sporting success."

For Leahy, such opportunities to bring change on a wider scale were some of the job's big attractions.

Backed by HK$1.8 billion government investment in top-class facilities and with sustainable long-term funding arrangements now in place, she is free of year-to-year financial worries and can focus instead on the "software" needed to achieve excellence.

In a world where science and sports go hand in hand, that means refining an evidence-based system, using biological, psychological and sociological data to maximise results and minimise risks for each elite athlete.

Aspects such as diet, training workloads, mental approach, hi-tech clothing and microtechnologies all come into play and, of course, interact differently in individual cases.

It is, therefore, up to the institute's coaches, specialists and research scientists to find the combinations that work best and thus unlock the secrets to world-class performance. "One goal is high-quality output, the other is outcomes - medals on the world stage," says Leahy, who first came to Asia as a student traveller in the 1980s and lectured gender equality issues at the Chinese University before heading the institute's sport psychology unit in the mid-1990s. "For 2012, we want to make sure Hong Kong is on the podium, or as close as possible, at the Olympics and the Paralympics."

In top form

  • Leahy competed in Ireland at national junior level in volleyball and basketball
  • She keeps herself fit by kayaking, trail running and regular visits to the gym
  • She is actively involved in raising awareness about family violence and helping social workers in that area
  • Leahy admires Michael Jordan and Cathy Freeman for their ability to perform under intense pressure

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