Singapore’s history at the Commonwealth Games
Singapore can trace its involvement in the Commonwealth Games to its roots as a member country of the British Empire, as can the other 52 countries that take part in the Games. Indeed, unlike most Games that are based on sheer geography, the Commonwealth Games were borne in 1930 out of a shared history and a shared language. However, the sporting principles are the same. Before competing, each athlete signs a declaration, stating that “we will take part in the Commonwealth Games of (the year) in the spirit of true sportsmanship, recognising the rules which govern them and desirous of participating in them for the honour of our Commonwealth and for the glory of sport.”
Originally known as the British Empire Games, the Commonwealth Games were first organized by a Canadian named Bobby Robinson and were held in 1930 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Eleven countries sent a total of 400 athletes to take part, and the City of Hamilton contributed $30,000 in assistance with travel costs. From 1930 to 1950, the Games were held every four years, with the exception of 1942 and 1946 during the Second World War. In 1962, the Games were renamed the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and in 1978 the Games became known as the Commonwealth Games.
Singapore first sent athletes to the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales in the United Kingdom in 1958. In total 35 countries sent 1,130 athletes and 228 officials to the Cardiff Games. Nine sports were on the agenda: athletics, boxing, cycling, fencing, lawn bowls, rowing, swimming and diving, weightlifting and wrestling.
The Games were historic for many reasons. It was the largest sporting event ever held in Wales, and the Cardiff Games proved to be a harbinger of South Africa’s eventual withdrawal from the Commonwealth Games prior to the 1962 event. People at the Cardiff Games publicly protested South Africa’s athlete selection policies that were based on race and colour. South Africa would not resume participating at the Commonwealth Games until the fall of the apartheid government in the 1990.
In 1958, though, 23 countries and dependencies won medals, including for the first time Ghana, Kenya, the Isle of Man and newcomer Singapore. It was an auspicious beginning for the country. Weightlifters Tan Howe Liang and Tan Ser Cher proved that they could hold their own against anyone in the Commonwealth even though they had little in the way of financial and training support. Tan Howe Liang won gold in the lightweight category by lifting 358 kg while Tan Ser Cher took the gold in the featherweight event with a lift of 310 kg.
At the 1962 Games in Perth Australia Tan Howe Liang would win again by lifting a combined 390 kg in the middleweight category. At the same Games, Singaporean Chua Phung Kim set a record in the featherweight event by lifting 322 kg. In second place was Allan Salter from Canada and M. Dias from Guyana in third. Chua’s record-breaking lift still stands more than 40 years later.
The gold medals won by Tan Howe Liang and Chua Phung Kim in 1962 were the last that Singapore would win for 40 years. Although Singapore sent a contingent of athletes to every Commonwealth Games thereafter, they were shut out of gold medals until 2002. Weightlifting brought in another four medals over the years, and boxer Syed Abdul Kadir won a bronze medal in 1974 in Christchurch New Zealand—for Singapore’s only medal in boxing.
In fact, beginning in 1990, Singapore won absolutely no medals at the Commonwealth Games until Manchester in 2002. Manchester was a watershed for Singapore. The athletes won a total of 13 medals: four golds, two silvers and seven bronzes. The Singaporeans at the 2002 Commonwealth Games revived the country’s pride in its athletes as well as its faith in its sporting ambitions.
Leading the change in attitude was the ladies table tennis team, comprising then-21 year-old Li Jiawei, 34 year-old Jing Junhong, 38 year-old Tan Paey Fern and 19 year-old Zhang Xueling. The team won the gold medal while Li Jiawei scooped up team golds in doubles with Jing Junhong and in mixed with Duan Yongjun as well as a silver in singles. Jing Junghong tied for third in women’s singles with Tan Paey Fern in addition to winning a bronze medal in mixed doubles with Zhang Tai Yong.
Singapore’s badminton players also rose to the challenge in Manchester. Li Li won the gold medal in the ladies event, earning Singapore its only gold in a singles event. However, the mixed badminton team, comprising Li Li, Ronald Susilo, Jiang Yanmei, Kendrick Lee, Fatimah Kumin Lim, Chua Yong Joo and Khoo Kian Teck, also picked up the gold medal in Manchester.
Manchester brought new hope to Singapore’s sports community. Melbourne confirmed the dream.
“For any sportsman or woman, representing one’s country in a major Games is always an honour. For me, there is added meaning whenever I represent Singapore. This is because I came from China originally. But after being groomed by the Singapore system, I have been able to go to events like the SEA, Asian and Commonwealth Games. I feel like I have been given a privilege and must treasure it even more.” – Table Tennis player Li Jiawei.