~ By Howard Lee ~It is barely days to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and as the eyes of the world look towards the greatest show on Earth, there will invariably be those who will ask the inevitable: How many medals will our athletes take home?
That question would also undoubtedly be on the minds of Singaporeans. But if you think about it, it is a strange question indeed, not least in reflecting how far we have come as an aspiring sporting nation.
With that one silver medal in Beijing 2008, Singapore is now a medal contender at the Olympics, a far cry from the long drought since the days of weightlifting silver blazed by Tan Howe Liang.
Indeed, we have achieved much in our pursuit for Olympic glory. Much can be said about the efforts of both the athletes striving for their best, and the people behind them who made their Olympic dreams possible.
It has not always been that way. It seemed not so long ago when Singapore has lamented the number of foreigners among our sporting pool, who were viewed with a fair degree of suspicion. Were they making use of their sporting abilities to get a pink IC? What have we done instead to cultivate our Singaporean sons and daughters for sporting excellence?
There was a time when the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports was seen as doing nothing more than throwing money away just to get a medal under our belt.
While that story has yet to reach its conclusion, perhaps a sliver of light has shone through. Among the ranks of the current Team Singapore, there are many more Singaporeans, born and bred here. They are young, and a few would be making their Olympic debut.
What is more, it is already clear that the majority of these athletes will not likely win medals. The immediate instinct would be, why still field them? The answer from the Singapore National Olympic Council – because they are our best, and taking part in the Games can only make them better.
For once, the direction (or at least the public relations efforts) of our national sporting bodies, not least the national Sports Councils, have been spot on, and they have to be commended for it.
As a medal contender, Singapore will never make it into the league of the true Olympic nations, but we can still be a formidable sporting nation if we get our policy compass right.
Ours should be a policy of allowing every Singaporean interested in making sports their career choice a chance to turn that dream into reality. Taking part in the Games, even if you do not make the final cut, is an important step, as much as it is a vital signal of support from your country. The current signs are encouraging.
But we still have far to go. For a start, we need to pay a better tribute to our sporting heroes, to demonstrate that they are not forgotten after their Olympic glory. It is heartening to see our ex-Olympians featured in the Straits Times, but we need to take better stock of what they have achieved, beyond mere show-pieces for the next generation of athletes.
In the course of my work the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet former Olympians like Chia Boon Leong, C Kunalan and Ang Peng Siong. They struck me as unassuming people, who thought little of their current status, and did what they did for the love of sport and country. And it is clear that they are not yet near their sporting sunset.
Ang is, of course, a recognised national coach. As for C Kunalan, I have met him at every other sporting event related to the Games I’ve been to, still active flagging of runs, opening school exhibits and leading tours at the sports museum.
How do we keep them in the sporting fraternity in a structured way that is sustainable to them as a livelihood, to tap on both their knowledge and fighting spirit for the benefit of our future athletes? This will be one of the key challenges facing our nation, if we want to signpost the future for our athletes after their competing prime.
And for another, we need to pay greater attention to our Paralympians. If anything, they are the ones hauling the medals home from the Paralympic Games, yet very little media attention has been paid on their achievements.
I’ve had to opportunity to meet some of the people at the Singapore Disability Sports Council, and their dedication is no less than those who work with able-bodied athletes. I’ve also met para-athletes Muhammad Firdaus, Theresa Goh, Yip Pin Xiu and Jovin Tan, all champions in their own right.
In them I see a fighting spirit that simply becomes a part of them, because they are essentially no different from any youngster trying to find their place in the world. What more can we do to give them the recognition they deserve and increase national awareness of their cause? That would be our moral imperative, more than anything else.
Here, I end with my best wishes to Team Singapore – you have achieved much to be where you are today. The final result at the Olympic and Paralympic Games is really the icing on the cake, and you will be no less acknowledged for what you bring home.