Soh Rui Yong at the Taiwan Open (Image from Soh Rui Yong / Facebook)

Two-time champion marathoner Soh Rui Ying not selected for SEA Games due to past conduct, says SNOC

National long-distance runner and two time SEA Games gold-medallist Soh Rui Yong won’t get a chance to add to this SEA Games medal this year as the athlete has been left out of Team Singapore’s contingent to the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines.

The 27-year old marathoner was not listed by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) as part of the 858 athletes who will be representing Singapore in 49 sports at the Games on 30 November to 11 December.

Mr Soh alone brought home half of the track and field gold medals in the 2017 Games, during which he also became the first Singaporean runner to win back to back gold medals at the SEA Games.

In March, Mr Soh clocked 2hr 23min 42sec at the Seoul Marathon, breaking the previous record which has stood since 1995. He also holds the national record for the 10,000m (31min 15.95sec) and the half-marathon (1hr 06min 46sec) which he set just this year at the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, breaking a 3-year old record held by Mok Ying Ren.

Mr Soh is the only Singaporean man in history to hold both the 10,000m and half-marathon record concurrently.

In a statement on 1 August, the national Olympic body said that its selection committee had “carefully deliberated” all nominations by the National Sports Associations (NSAs) for their athletes for the upcoming games.

“In the case of the nomination put forward by Singapore Athletics (SA) for Soh Rui Yong’s participation at the 2019 SEA Games, the selection committee has decided to reject SA’s nomination,” continue the statement.

“Since the 2017 SEA Games, there have been numerous instances where Soh has displayed conduct that falls short of the standards of attitude and behaviour that the SNOC expects of and holds its athletes to, considering that they are held up and seen as representatives of the country and as examples to our sporting youth.

“As such, the SNOC has decided to reject SA’s nomination for his national representation at the 2019 SEA Games.”

The selection committee was chaired by SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin and comprised vice-presidents Jessie Phua and Milan Kwee; treasurer Edwin Lee; Manila Games chef de mission Juliana Seow; sepak takraw president Abdul Halim Kader, badminton president Lawrence Leow; Sport Singapore chief Lim Teck Yin, SNOC athletes’ commission chairman Mark Chay, and Tan Chen Kee from the Ministry of Education.

Sportsmanship in question?

While they did not go into details on these instances of conduct, Mr Soh and the Council have had disagreements in the past.

Before the 2017 SEA Games in Malaysia, Mr Soh was formally warned by the SNOC for a breach of regulations related to the promotion of personal sponsors on social media. On top of that, Mr Soh had also cut holes in his race vest before his event in Kuala Lumpur which had upset sponsor 2XU, resulting in the termination of its sponsorship of Singapore Athletics a few months later.

More recently, Mr Soh was served a legal letter of demand by the SNOC to retract his statements about fellow marathoner Ashley Liew’s conduct during the 2015 SEA Games and issue an apology.

In an article on Mr Soh’s own website, he gave a blow-by-blow account of his first gold medal win at the 2015 SEA Games marathon. In his, he recounted how there was a point in the race when a group of runners in the lead – which included Mr Soh – ran ahead instead of taking a U-turn.

He had noted that there were no signs indicating a U-turn and that the group only turned around after hearing people scream for them to turn around. At that point, ‘the balance of power shifted’, said Mr Soh as the leaders were now trailing behind and those who were initially lagging were now in the lead. Mr Soh then said his teammate, Ashley Liew, who had been in last place was now in front. “Nobody slowed down to wait – the race was on.” He then described feeling angry at the turn of events but managing to level his head to focus on the mammoth task at hand.

Later, however, the SNOC had nominated Liew for an international award an act of sportsmanship during that marathon which the council said Liew has slowed down to allow the former-leading group to catch up.

Mr Soh had written his post back in 2015. Four years later, SNOC demanded Mr Soh retract the statement. Mr Soh refused. He also took to social media to criticise the SNOC for continuing to back Liew.

On June 19, he had written: “The Singapore National Olympic Council should be ashamed at themselves for failing conduct a proper investigation of truth, and choosing rather to only speak with witnesses from one side in order to back up what they want to believe.”

Chair of the Athlete’s Commission Mark Chay said, “Athletes have rights, but with those rights come responsibilities. These include representing the sport, community and our nation with certain values, which include adhering to the athletes’ code of conduct. At the last SEA Games, Rui Yong didn’t do this… (and) his actions and comments had consequences.”

Echoing this view, SA President Tang Weng Fei said, “I am a little surprised by this news, but not entirely because there was always this possibility because of the controversy he has been in. At the end of the day, an athlete’s selection is based not just on performance, but how you represent the sport as well.”

It is curious though that while SNOC is focusing on instances where Mr Soh has behaved in an unbecoming manner from their perspective, they seem to have also forgotten many instances during which Mr Soh displayed excellent sportsmanship.

Following the 2017 SEA Games, Indonesian runner Angus Prayogo praised Mr Soh’s attitude during the marathon. Mr Prayogo recalled in an interview with Indonesian sports news website DetikSport that he has missed his drink at the designated hydration point. Realising this, Mr Soh then offered the remainder of his own drink to Prayogo. “Even if we are enemies on the field, we still maintain sportsmanship,” Prayogo said. “He (Soh) took his drink, I didn’t managed to take mine, and so he asked me if I wanted to take his.”

Back in 2012, Mr Soh displayed this graciousness again when he stopped midway through the Army Half Marathon to check on fellow Singaporean marathoner Ashley Liew who had tripped and fell at the 8km mark. Mr Soh eventually won that race with Liew coming in second.

Responding to this decision by the SNOC, Mr Soh took to his Facebook to convey his disappointment at the ‘petty’ behaviour of SNOC President Tan Chuan-Jin and his team

Mr Soh wrote, “This is akin to primary school playground politics where kids go “I don’t friend you already!” just because you say something they don’t like.

I consider winning medals for my country at SEA Games to be a national service. Since I no longer am bound to this duty, I look forward to exploring my potential at other marathons I’ve always wanted to race at, such as the Boston Marathon.

I wish all my athletics team-mates all the best of luck in Manila and will be rooting for them always.”

Mr Soh also told Strait Times that he has no intention of lodging an appeal of the decision, saying “I don’t wish to waste more time on unreasonable people at SNOC.”

WP’s Yee Jenn Jong also shared the news of Mr Soh’s exclusion by the SNOC, adding that it is “difficult to be a maverick in Singapore.”

“We can be innovative, bold, daring but we are expected to toe the lines and be politically correct. It is still very much their way or the highway,” he concluded.