Annabel Pennefather, Singapore’s first female chef de mission at the Olympics, dies at age 72

Annabel receiving the Singapore flag from former SNOC President Mr Teo Chee Hean at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games Flag Presentation Ceremony. She was the first female chef de mission to lead Team Singapore at the Olympic Games.

By Derek Wong

Annabel (second from right) with IOC member Mr Ng Ser Miang (left), Senior Minister and former SNOC President Mr Teo Chee Hean (second from left) and Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong

She was a tour de force on and off the hockey pitch and a respected champion for women in sports – not just in Singapore, but beyond these shores as well. Annabel Pennefather, who broke a glass ceiling as the nation’s first female chef de mission to the Olympics, died on April 27, 2020. She was 72.

From age five, a young Pennefather would be seen scuttling up and down the front garden of her family’s colonial bungalow in Jansen Road, dribbling a puck. Her father Percy, who captained the national hockey team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, would be on the lawn with her. Her mother Ruth also played the sport and donned the country’s colours.

It was a family affair. Her grandfather Lancelot, a footballer, won four Malaya Cups for Singapore between 1922 and 1928, while grandmother Alice was a hockey, badminton and tennis champion.

Unsurprisingly, Pennefather was drawn to sports, showing natural flair on the hockey pitch as she captained the primary and secondary school teams at CHIJ. She led the national team for 10 years in the 1970s.

Through it all, one memory with her father lingered. Her own Olympic torch was first lit as she sent him off for the Games all those years ago as a young girl.

She said in a 2018 interview with SNOC, of her most emotional moment with the organisation: “When I walked into the stadium at the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games to the deafening roar of the welcoming spectators. So many thoughts rushed through my mind that it just brought tears to my eyes. Here I was at the birth place of the Olympic Games. The Olympics was also in my family’s sporting heritage as my late father had led Singapore’s men’s hockey team at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. When I accompanied him to the airport for the team’s send-off at the age of eight, I just wanted to be on that plane with them, and now I was at the Olympics.”

She was chef de mission for the Singapore national team – the first woman to hold the role in the country’s history.

Annabel (second row, second from left) led the Team Singapore at the 2010 Commonwealth Games


A role model for women

Pennefather had multiple roles as a lawyer, sports administrator and various board positions. But closest to her heart was her position as an advocate for women, especially in a male-dominated sports scene.

She said of her experiences as chef de mission at various major international sporting events, in a 2018 interview with The Straits Times: “Those were all highlights for me because I felt it was part of the journey for me to develop my experience and exposure, and to show women it was possible if you are prepared and if you are willing to commit the time and your capabilities to these roles.”

She was a chef de mission known for being in the trenches with the athletes. Many of them remember her for sharing an apartment with swimmers at the Games Village in Athens, when she was entitled to five-star accommodation. To her, it was not just a ceremonial role. She wanted to build rapport with the athletes, to take care of their needs so they could compete without any worry.

Pennefather was also the first woman to lead the Singapore Hockey Federation and was fondly remembered by outgoing SNOC president Teo Chee Hean in his 2014 farewell speech as the first National Sports Association representative to join the SNOC Executive Committee. She was the first woman to be co-opted into the committee in 1999, and became Vice-President in 2002.

In 2005, she was awarded the Asian “Women and Sport” trophy from the International Olympic Committee, in recognition of her work in encouraging the participation of women and girls at all levels of sport.

Annabel (right) retired from the SNOC Executive Committee in 2018 after serving as Vice-President for 16 years. She is seen here with SNOC President Mr Tan Chuan-Jin (centre) and former SNOC Vice-President Mr Low Teo Ping.


Singapore’s ambassador

As a youth, Pennefather once considered being an air stewardess to see the world, before embarking on a successful law career. Serendipity would have it that she left her imprint on sports all around the globe through holding various positions on international bodies.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, SNOC President, said: “Her contribution was not limited to Singapore. She was also invited and elected to positions at the Commonwealth Games Federation, Badminton World Federation, International Cricket Council, International Hockey Federation and World Athletics.”

Pennefather said in an interview with The Straits Times in 2018, after stepping down from SNOC. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to have been able to serve the athletes and Singapore in so many ways and, as I move forward to all these (other) roles, I hope that I will be a good ambassador for Singapore.”

She was President of the International Hockey Federation’s Judicial Commission, member of the International Association of Athletics Federation’s Disciplinary Tribunal, member of the Badminton World Federation’s External Judicial Expert Group as well as an independent lawyer on the International Cricket Council’s Disputes Resolution Committee. Her influence was truly felt across different sporting arenas.

Outside of sports, she was a pioneer in the field of law as head of Singapore’s first dedicated sports law practice at Harry Elias partnership in 2004 as well as Vice-President of the Law Society.

Annabel (third from right) celebrating with Singapore’s Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling (second from right) at the 2016 MAP Award and Appreciation event


Softly, gently

In the bruising world of sport and law, Pennefather stood out for her calm and genteel manner. Yet, at the same time, she was a determined leader on the field and a fierce proponent of women in sports. She left everything on the pitch, found more, and gave everything off the pitch as well. The question she always asked herself was: How to use sports to develop opportunities for others?

She once told Her World Magazine in an interview: “Whatever gifts or talents we’re blessed with, we’ve got to give something back. I did what came along, what I was interested in, and what I could do. And whatever I did, I gave everything I could to be the best I could.”