The following article which is critical of the sports development in Singapore has been quietly pulled out from the Mediacorp’s archive. I am wondering the reason behind the withdrawal? A copy of it is still cached in Google server which I hope it will not be removed as well. [Updated 26 Jan 2011, the cache in Google server is no longer available] – Akio
Is there sports renaissance in the offing?
We have big dreams, big infrastructure, the big bucks to drive it – now to recapture the sporting spirit
As history is made, with two weeks of action at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) kicking off here in the Lion City, there seems no better time to ask this question.
Dare we hope that just around the bend is a new golden age for Singapore sports, one overdue since the 1960s when the nation had its true sporting heroes and celebrated them?
In some respects, it might be argued that we’ve never been closer to the prize.
We have made major strides in the sporting arena over the past four decades, thanks in part to a growing awareness among citizens of the benefits of a sporting lifestyle. With more Singaporeans also following major international events such as Formula 1, tennis Grand Slams, European football, the NBA season and of course the Olympics, it’s no surprise that sports is enjoying a renaissance in the public consciousness.
What’s more, we no longer need to turn on the television to catch the action – as some of the biggest sporting brands and events have made their way to our shores. The Singapore Grand Prix is now a fixture on the global F1 circuit, with the distinction of being the first night race ever run.
The first-ever YOG should see the sports stars of the future emerge here, while for Singapore one side effect of playing host has been the creation of three completely new sports associations – wrestling, modern pentathlon and handball – with the attendant infrastructure and financial support to kick off the growth of these Olympic events.
More traditional sports, such as fencing, have also benefitted through the hosting of regional qualifiers which have attracted top youth athletes, as well as other events organised by commercial entities looking to benefit from the YOG buzz.
TO COMPETE WITH THE BEST …
On a more sustainable level, the Government has laid out plans to develop a long-term infrastructure and athlete development pathway to ensure success at the top levels of international competition.
This includes the setting up of systems and programmes to attract and develop young talent; the Singapore Sports School, to provide a conducive environment for budding athletes to study, train and compete at the same time; and multi-year plans for all the various sports recognised by the Singapore Sports Council to ensure long-term growth.
There are plans, albeit delayed, to replace the ageing National Stadium at Kallang with a modern integrated sports hub, and this will house a sports institute similar to organisations in the United States and Australia that have been behind much of those countries’ sporting successes.
The institute and hub will offer the best and latest in sports technology, science and medicine, to give our athletes every advantage as they take on the world.
More generally, the Government is seeing the benefits of encouraging sports and healthy living for all Singaporeans, to attenuate the medical care burden of a greying population.
And sports – once regarded as a distraction to more practical and important pursuits such as education and earning a living – is these days enjoying an elevated status. This is largely due to the recognition that a vibrant sports scene is crucial to any global city that is attractive to both tourists and top talent looking for a place to live.
With tourists come tourism dollars, while top foreign talent can become drivers for future growth of the country. That’s not including the knock-on effect on the economy every time the country proves itself capable of hosting a monumental event like the F1 or the YOG.
BIG DREAMS, BIG BUCKS
This heightened emphasis on sports has wrought tangible results and changes. The quantity and quality of sports facilities open to the average Singaporean has improved by leaps and bounds, with new stadiums and sports centres opened in recent years. Hundreds of millions have been spent building indoor sports halls for all schools.
One recent development was the $2.5-million pledge by the authorities to develop satellite centres aimed at encouraging youths aged six to 16 to learn new sports in a safe environment. These will be set up at existing sports facilities, such as schools and sports and recreation centres in the heartlands.
This comes on top of the $50.22 million dispensed earlier this year to the national sports associations to run their programmes, up from last year’s $46.98 million.
These programmes have achieved varying levels of success, and one visible result is the thousands of participants at the growing number of endurance events – such as biathlons, triathlons and marathons – being held almost every weekend.
The Singapore flag has also been hoisted aloft by our national athletes at major international competitions: Swimmers such as Tao Li at the Asian and Olympic Games, and new world champions, our table tennis women’s team and young sailors Justin Liu and Sherman Cheng.
Taking their cue from these successes, other associations have also set lofty goals for their charges. The tennis federation, for one, is hoping to unearth two youngsters willing to take the plunge of becoming full-time professional players on the international circuit.
So it seems Singapore sports today is all about big dreams, big infrastructure and big bucks to fuel it all. But will this lead to a true renaissance for the sporting scene?
NO FAME, NO FORTUNE, JUST RESULTS
Before Tao Li and Li Jiawei became household names, Singaporeans cheered on legends such as Tan Howe Liang, C Kunalan, Junie Sng, Patricia Chan and Ang Peng Siong.
These athletes ensured that Majulah Singapura was heard regularly at competitions like the Seap Games (the precursor to the current South-east Asian Games), the Asian Games and even the Olympics. And they did this without fancy technology and equipment, cutting-edge sports science or millions of dollars in sponsorship.
Indeed, Mr Kunalan, who remains the only Singaporean man to ever win the sprint double of the 100m and 200m at the SEA Games, ran his first race at the venerable Farrer Park barefooted on the cinder track as he did not have proper running shoes.
Many will remember the tearful plight of Mr Ang who held the 50m freestyle world record, albeit briefly, in 1982 – yet could not secure enough funding to allow him to train for a last hurrah at the SEA Games.
And Mr Tan, who became Singapore’s first Olympic medallist with a weighlifting silver in 1960, can attest to how they toiled away in relative anonymity, compared to the hype and buzz surrounding our champions today.
So how did they take their limited resources and turn it into sporting gold? And how did they rally a nation behind them at a time when results were not readily available online, and blogs did not document the human drama behind their achievement for all in cyberspace? I believe the secret to this athletic alchemy is the key to a renaissance for sporting Singapore.
There have been a number of reasons proffered as to why we seem to have lost some of the sporting spirit that infused the heydays of the 1960s and 1970s.
Ironically, the growing absorption with international sporting events may have eroded interest in local athletes and competitions, as cable channels bring top-level action into our living rooms round the clock, and newspapers devote the bulk of print space to foreign sports news.
At the same time, our current champions include a number who were born abroad and may not be able to command widespread local support compared to homegrown stars.
The sports authorities have argued that we should take pride in our system, which is able to attract, retain and groom champions and focus less on where they were born.
But it is human nature to root for, and relate more to, someone who has been born and bred in the same place.
At the same time, athletes themselves are facing increased pressure from society and families to obtain a good education and carve out a respectable career, something which makes it harder to devote oneself to a sporting dream.
Regardless of the reason, recapturing that sporting spirit remains key to ensuring that all the investment, financial and otherwise, into growing sports in Singapore leads to a true renaissance that resonates with every person here.
The Government appears keen to rekindle that spirit, especially among the youth and has made extolling the virtues of sport and the Olympics a key priority in schools and other places where sports are taught.
But it might not be so simple.
We may be able to learn something from the Finns, who have long enjoyed a strong sporting culture and tradition, especially among their running fraternity which has produced champs such as Lasse Viren, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in endurance track events.
Their sporting ethos seems to revolve around a uniquely Finnish characteristic known as sisu – loosely translated as guts, strength of will, determination and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Athletes able to demonstrate sisu are lauded as champions and heroes, figures worthy of admiration and emulation.
The current challenges facing Singapore’s sporting fraternity could provide the perfect backdrop for us to develop our own version of sisu, that could be specific to Singaporean athletes and a source of inspiration to those who follow sports.
Be it in overcoming less-than-ideal training environments or regional competitors from traditional sporting powerhouses who have trained longer and harder, this spirit can drive our athletes on to superlative performances – and give fans reason to cheer and support local sportsmen once again.
The writer is a former national fencer and triathlete and is currently president of Fencing Singapore and president of the Singapore Modern Pentathlon Association.