Align success factors with true spirit of YOG

Howard Lee

Let me state up front that I fully support the YOG. That is, I believe in the ideals it enshrines, about friendship, respect and doing your best. As a former school dragon boater, I recognise especially that,  in the mad flurry of paddles, respect for you opponents is something that is hard to come by, but nevertheless something to aspire towards.

So, for all its skewed reporting on the YOG, I appreciate the traditional media for highlighting the case of Low Wei Jie. Granted, the media have thus far taken a moral stand that sided heavily with the YOG organisers, but this particular story could have been the one shining light. It could be the human interest factor of the story, or a desperate last-minute attempt to drum up support for the games (you can decide for yourself), but Wei Jie the person, at 12 years old, demonstrated what it means to doggedly follow you dreams despite all hurdles.

Unfortunately, his story has also shown how the entire discourse of the YOG has perverted the very spirit he symbolises, and while we should grant this young man his moment of pride, nothing, not even the honour of a place in the torch relay, could possibly erase the way politics has defaced and disgraced what should have been an invigorating new future in sports.

From the start of the bidding to this very moment, Singapore’s relationship to the games has been centred on the vanity and pride of a few key appointment holders.

Take a good look at the words used by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, especially in recent days, and you might detect an eagerness to justify why a half-baked, full-dumb event should continue. You might also detect the excuses of a man listing to his boss the reasons for his promotion, or why he should not be sacked. My run-down as such:

Said: If we knew it would cost this much, we would still have bidded for it.

Meant: We are waaaaaay over budget for this, but hey, it’s still worth every dollar!

Said: This event will put us on everyone’s radar screen for investment.

Meant: We will never recoup the losses of this obscene budget, so better if we take a long-term view on ROI.

Said: Singaporeans are proud of YOG.

Meant: Actually, they are not. But let’s just say they are, so they will feel like traitors, and hopefully bad enough to support the event.

I can go on with this pointless diatribe. But what takes the cake, perhaps, is that this senseless vanity was built on public money and the backs of countless public officers, not to mention through the exploitation of athletes (the convenient but necessary show pieces) and volunteers (willing or otherwise, but effective emotion trump cards).

To be blunt, Singapore is not ready to host the first YOG. Neither are we fit from a moral stand point. We have muscled our way into it, purely on the rails of over-selling our ability to organise, organise, organise with machine-like efficiency, without a clear position (or perhaps faked the perception) of our ability to empathise with the spirit of the games. We sold Singapore Inc, not Singapore In Sync.

Least we be naïve, the Olympics has always been about economics. No country will host it without some idea of how it can be monetised, in terms of tourism dollars or lucrative development contracts. Nations have pulled out all stops to make hosting the games a success. Think of the anti-spitting campaign for Beijing 2008, and our “Give Way to YOG” lanes would seem trivial. Perhaps we were at fault, too, for focusing too much on the controversies and pressuring the organisers along those lines of response.

But at the very heart of it, some consideration must be paid to the people of the host country. Without their support, the games could be the most well-executed, but would still lack spirit, passion, pride.

Australians would have paid the world to host Sydney 2000, if for no other reason than to have the home crowd there to support their home-grown legends. From the corners of this diverse land bonded by hardship and mateship, it was Aussie pride and passion that brought people together to don green and gold, to cheer on Ian Thorpe, Kiran Perkins and Kathy Freeman alike.

Not for Singapore. We have neglected the proper development of a sporting culture, and in typical year-end exam fashion, rewarded only post-medal achievements. Desperate for medals, we import athletes, add “Singapore citizen” to their resumes, but have no concrete plans on how to exploit their expertise for the next generation. We fixed the symptoms, not the cause, of why Singapore today still struggles in sporting excellence. We have the Olympic machine, and a well-oiled one whether you like it or not, but we do not have the Olympic spirit.

The YOG organisers must have known all this, or if they didn’t, are now paying the price for the neglect, trying all they can to manufacture a success in this quadrant. But at the end of the day, we owe it to the people for whom the YOG is for – the athletes and the citizens. This is what the organisers must be answerable to, not to some committee agenda, KPIs or misty-eyed economic benefits.

As such, I now return to the topic of this article – my take on how the YOG should be evaluated for success:

1) How will we be rewarding our medal winners? – Not even thinking about the desperate need to revise the broken medal-first-money-later reward system, but just to go along with it. If we truly value the games, we need to level-up our young athletes to be Olympic achievers, and show it any way we can.

2) What have our volunteers learnt from YOG that will benefit them in the future? – Let’s just gloss over the “do it for your country” spiel, or the food poisoning fracas. We have tried to rouse a nation to support an event, failed miserably, and the people who have doggedly persisted to make the best of it are the volunteers. We owe it to them to make their time and energy worth the while.

3) What are the sporting programmes that will be put in place following YOG? – Should the organisers think of resting on the laurels of a “successful” event, don’t. The YOG does not and cannot be the end goal of what we try to do as a sporting nation. If anything, it should spur further development of schemes, events and facilities, building on any positive momentum created.

It might be too late to build up the illusion of pride and support at the event venues, but not too late to salvage the YOG’s contribution to the people. If there are no replies to any of the above criteria I have indicated above, then it only goes to show how myopic and selfish the organising of the YOG has been. And Balakrishnan’s recent blog reply to one of the volunteers, with a bravado of doing it for the athletes and volunteers, would ring just as hollow as the echoes in our half-empty stadiums. You can try talking the Olympic spirit into us, but it works better if backed by affirmative action.

And I will always save a salvo for our traditional media. No more reporting it like Shamir Osman of TODAY, please. Waxing lyrical of the YOG with adjective-overloaded terms – “the world is now hungry for more stirring moments of Olympic magic”, “shimmer from the bronze medal…seemed to illuminate the entire International Convention Centre”, “the noise bursting forth from the stands…rang of Excellence, Friendship and Respect” – is not only painful to read, but a far cry from ground reality. Stop hanging off ministerial soundbites, and start doing some real journalism for a change. Track the games today, but be ready to follow it beyond the event into our everyday lives, documenting its after-effects. That is your charge, if you want a part in making the YOG a true success.

Finally, my sincere apologies to our athletes and volunteers if they read this post and become disheartened. I only hope that by shedding light on the dismal system you are in, you will continue with pride and fortitude having full knowledge of your situation. You are young, but not naïve, and I trust that you would be able to discern hype from reality. And have no doubt that this nation supports you, even if we do not support the YOG.


Photo from Shuqun Primary School website.