It has been a dream for every athlete to be able to compete in a world-class competition such as the Olympics. Apparently, the dream is no longer a dream for national rowing athlete, Saiyidah Aisyah, who earned her qualification for competing in Rio in April, by making the ‘B’ final in the qualification race in South Korea.
This made her the first Singaporean rower to ever qualify for the Olympic Games, which she considers as her best sporting moment throughout her career as an athlete.
Her road to the Rio Olympics obviously does not lack obstacles. Aisyah has had people having high expectations of her after her victory in SEA Games in Myanmar three years ago, which earned her the gold medal. However, her subsequent races failed to met expectations, as she only managed to won two bronze medals in the 2015 SEA Games on lightweight single sculls 500m and 1000m categories.
The tension and burden seemed to have brought her spirit down, but she managed to overcome her fears and did her best in South Korea.
Aside from Aisyah’s performances, she experienced difficulties from an entirely another area.
Before her deciding race in South Korea, she had decided to train abroad in Sydney, Australia with her coach Alan Bennett. Her training and living expenses cost a lot, and her personal savings were not enough to cover all financial requirements.
Amidst her struggle with the training, she also had to spend her time thinking of ways to raise money for her expenses, which ranged from crowdfunding to sourcing for sponsorships. Her mother had even offered to sell her house, which she declined and said that since she decided on her own to go on this journey, she did not want anyone to be burdened because of her.
Fortunately, Singaporeans are very supportive of her. Aisyah managed to get $14,000 from a crowdfunding, which exceeded the initial target of $9000. Also, even though rowing are not a very popular sports in Singapore and lots of companies had rejected her proposal of sponsorship, but she still managed to find several who are willing to sponsor her - the most notable one of the few is the fast food chain 4Fingers Crispy Chicken.
Some have noted the irony of an athlete endorsing a company which produces unhealthy food, but she defended her sponsor in her website by saying that the people of 4Fingers sponsored her out of goodwill and did not expect her to “hold up one of their yummy chicken wings or burgers and promote them” .
No sponsorship or support came from the government at that time, which triggered criticism online. People blamed the government for the lack of sponsorship for athletes from unpopular sports such as rowing, and criticized its decision for hiring too many foreign athletes and spend more on them instead of on local ones. Some even went far as to speculate that this could be an issue of racism, noting that Aisyah is from the Malay ethnic and came from a Muslim family.
Aisyah, on the other hand, denied all prejudice inflicted on the government, saying that people have the tendency of stirring negativity whenever the news of her problems with money appears. “I am grateful to these group of people who are genuinely concerned for us, athletes, and our welfare, hoping that we would receive more support from the government,” she wrote in her website, “However, I hope that those who simply like to make use of my story as a once self-funded athlete to pick on the flaws of the government would move on because times have changed (and) I believe that Singapore Sports have progressed.”
She stated in her website, that the government is currently supporting her through the SpexScholarship, which has been giving her monthly allowance since April this year. She was one of 17 who were awarded Sports Excellence (spex) Scholarships on 11 March this year. She said that the scholarship changed her life, lifting her financial burden off of her shoulders and letting her focus on her training for the upcoming competition in Rio.
For now, her target for her first performance in the Olympics is quite modest. She and her coach decided that they have to be realistic, so they plan to make the ‘D’ final and be on the top 20. She said that winning a medal is every athlete’s dream, but she knows it is better to just do her best for now. She also said that her career as an athlete is far from over, as she is only 28 now, and athletes are usually at their thirties when they won medals in the Olympics.
After Rio, she plans to win a medal in the 2018 Asian Games to redeem her loss in the 2014 campaign.