This is not going to go down well with all you rugby fans, but the Hong Kong Sevens doesn’t have a lot to do with the city that it’s played in. Yes, given the name and location, that’s a bold thing to say. But take a look at who attended the just-ended competition that Fiji won so decisively, and what went on in and around the stadium and elsewhere during the three days, and the picture is quite clear. The event is largely disconnected from the general population of the place in which it is held.
This strikes me each time the Sevens comes around. I am well aware that Hong Kong’s rugby community is wholly behind the event; my sons used to play. One of my elder son’s proudest moments was playing before a half-filled stadium in an age competition on a Sevens Friday. It’s an exhilarating stage for whoever takes to the turf and the party that surrounds it creates a thrilling atmosphere.
The Hong Kong Rugby Union does a sterling job organising what is arguably our city’s highest-profile international sporting carnival and our men’s and women’s teams are gracious hosts and determined competitors. Without doubt, this leg of the World Rugby Sevens calendar is the premier event. For fans of the game, it’s a great global advertisement. Hotels, pubs and restaurants in Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong do a roaring trade and the sponsors and partners presumably also get a nice slice of the action.
But the packed stands and corporate boxes aren’t a snapshot of Hong Kong; they are a snippet of a narrow sector of the community mixed in with planeloads of out-of-towners. If you’re looking for born-and-bred locals who are the heart and soul of our city in the crowd, they’re few and far between. The prices said much about the people attending; not too many earning the monthly wage of HK$16,000 would be willing to shell out HK$1,800 for the three-day ticket package, HK$130 for a litre of draft beer, HK$65 for a cup of coffee, HK$50 for a bottle of water or HK$120 for a double cheeseburger. Most of the 94 per cent Chinese population of our city was unaware that the Sevens took place this past weekend. Those that did made a point of avoiding parts of Causeway Bay frequented by spectators, knowing full well how unpleasant an encounter with a drunk and disorderly rugby fan can be.
Rugby is, after all, a Western sport with limited local appeal. My sons played it because they went to international schools; they would unlikely have encountered it had they not, nor would I have encouraged their participation. Hong Kong parents are aware of the risks of contact sports and are only too eager to ensure their children avoid injury so as to be fully capable of doing those things they consider important – studying and passing exams with flying colours. My younger son, the one most built like a typical rugby player, knows too well how physically demanding the sport can be and still carries a shoulder injury from his playing days.
Therein lies the problem with pushing Hong Kong as a venue for major sporting events. For all the billions of dollars the government has been throwing over the years at elite athletes and the likely-to-be-scrapped Mega Events Fund, we’re still a largely lethargic society. Sports-mad places don’t have pocket-sized parks like ours, facilities that need to be booked weeks in advance and children with rounded shoulders from all the slouching over smartphone screens. Of course, our often saturating humidity doesn’t help. But the Sevens crowd puts it all into perspective: largely Caucasian, reasonably well-off compared to the typical Hongkonger, and not in attendance so much for the rugby as the blast of a party.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post