A decade later, the Youth Olympic Games still lives on in Singapore

By Justin Kor

Come July and August every year, a sporting fever hits Singapore as thousands of youth eager to showcase their athletic talents throng into stadiums and sports halls. For about six weeks, fencers flash their epees, volleyball players smash it out on courts, and football teams duel on fields.

This is the Singapore Youth Olympic Festival (SYOF), an annual multi-sport event that doubles as a celebration of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) hosted by the country a decade ago. But this is no regular sports competition. Instead of winning medals, thousands of youth focus on cultivating friendships and education.

It’s not a cliché. At Fencing Singapore, youths not only get to spar, but also learn how to referee matches and become competition armourers – personnel who check that attires and weapons are suitable for competitions. The programme has grown in popularity, with participation numbers in the festival doubling since its inclusion four years ago.

Young fencers take on the task of officiating the fencing competition at the SYOF.

“We look beyond competitions and focus on participation beyond fencing. SYOF Fencing is a competition organised by youth fencers for youth fencers,” said Fencing Singapore president Juliana Seow. “Like the YOG, the concept is to organise an event, educate, engage and influence young athletes and inspire them to play an active role in their communities.”

But the legacy of Singapore 2010 goes beyond the festival. In the decade since the Olympic Flame lit up the Marina Bay Floating Platform, YOG has continued to invigorate the Singapore sports scene and started a national movement, pushed on by the Singapore Olympic Foundation (SOF), the body dedicated to preserving the Games legacy.

Today, Singapore is seen as a renowned sports destination around the world, and vestiges of the Games’ presence dot the cityscape.

“The YOG’s legacy still remains strong in Singapore,” said Mr Ng Ser Miang, chairman of the SOF and one of the key parties responsible for bringing the YOG to Singapore. “So many people have benefitted, and it has propelled Singapore to the world stage.”


More sports, more backing, and more glory

Before the YOG, wrestlers were a rare breed of athletes in Singapore. The sport of handball was virtually unknown. But when it was announced that Singapore 2010 would feature them, new National Sports Associations were set up. These sports have since grown in popularity at both the grassroots and elite levels.

Yap Su Jun, a bronze medalist in the wrestling freestyle women 55kg event at the 2019 SEA Games. Photo: Andy Chua/SNOC

At the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, Singapore wrestlers won medals for the first time with three bronzes. The country also boasts a national handball league today.

While youth athletes had minimal backing in the past, many are now supported by the SOF though the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship, which has helped more than 2,900 student-athletes achieve their sporting dreams after tycoon Peter Lim made a S$10 million donation to set it up in 2010.

“I thought that it would be a great idea to institutionalise the legacy of the YOG,” said Mr Ng. “With the setting up of the SOF, it has enabled us to continue with the celebration of the YOG every year and support thousands of young athletes from different backgrounds.”

Support has led to success, best encapsulated by swimmer and former SOF-Peter Lim recipient Joseph Schooling winning Singapore’s first Olympic gold at Rio 2016.

The country has also expanded its Olympic reach by debuting at the Winter Olympics when speed skater Cheyenne Goh, yet another scholarship recipient, competed at Pyeongchang 2018. In 2019, Lim pumped in another $10 million to further fund the scholarship from 2021 to 2030.

Olympic and World Champion swimmer Mrs Libby Trickett visited Singapore in 2019 to share her experience up close with the recipients of the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship. Photo: Lim Weixiang/SNOC

The impact goes beyond the tangibles. SOF organises talks with famous Olympic athletes. Four-time Olympic champion swimmer Libby Trickett and Athens 2004 champion paddler Ryu Seung Min are among those who have spoken here, inspiring young athletes.


The Purple Army

The YOG legacy goes into the community too. During the YOG in 2010, thousands of volunteers clad in purple polo t-shirts quickly became a familiar sight. Be it chaperoning the youth athletes or ushering spectators to their seats, these frontliners – dubbed the “Purple Army” by the media – were key to the YOG’s success.

The purple uniform would become so iconic that it made a return when Singapore hosted the 2015 SEA Games. This time, the “Purple Army” was given a more official designation: Team Nila. What started as a band of participants signing up for a single event has blossomed into a national movement that consists of 5,000 active volunteers today.

Team Nila volunteers at the 2015 SEA Games. To date, there are around 5,000 active Team Nila volunteers. Photo: SNOC

The group has since become a focal point of sports volunteerism in the country – from helping to conduct fitness classes, to becoming assistant coaches at sports clubs. Recently, they have even helped with Covid-19 relief efforts when over a thousand volunteers came together to help distribute masks nationwide.

Back then, it was just a bunch of volunteers coming together to help. Today, it’s different,” said Team Nila head Ethen Ong. “We’ve found a stronger identity, and we’ve built a stronger nation through this. Sports volunteerism has become a lifestyle.”


A sporting cityscape

The five rings have even become part of Singapore’s cityscape. Just a five-minute walk away from where the Olympic flame was lit, the Youth Olympic Park – Singapore’s first art park – stands as a physical legacy. Its 18 murals on display, drawn by youths that feature famous Singapore icons such as the Merlion and the Esplanade, acknowledges their central role at the Games.

There are also 205 trees along the adjacent Olympic Walk, planted to symbolise the 205 participating countries that came in 2010. “The Singapore 2010 YOG is not just an event, it is important because it will leave a legacy, which we hope will last for generations to come,” said former senior parliamentary secretary Teo Ser Luck, who was heavily involved with the YOG, in 2010.

But perhaps the most important legacy that the YOG has left in Singapore is the “can-do” spirit that arose when a country with no Olympic experience managed to pull off one of its best events – something that Mr Rogge termed the “Singapore Spirit”. And in light of the difficulties currently faced by Singapore with Covid-19, it has become even more imperative that this spirit is remembered, said Mr Ng.

“As we mark 10 years of the YOG, I believe this is the spirit that we want to build on – one of coming together and conquering difficulties,” he said. “We will need to make use of every opportunity and event to continue promoting this spirit.”