Op-ed: How Singapore sports’ golden era can shine even brighter

With the 2019 SEA Games waterpolo women's team at the Athletes' Village in Clark

30 Nov 2019

Singaporean athletes are not just delivering medals these days, but also incredible performances that strike a chord with supporters. We are here because of the foundations laid by our sporting pioneers, and we must continue to create ecosystems that give our athletes the best chance for success.

By Tan Chuan-Jin

SEA Games 2019 has just begun and this competition will be filled with defining stories. Even as it unfolds, I am particularly drawn to an event in August, when we watched as the shuttlecock dropped out of bounds on Yeo Jia Min’s side of the court, and saw her drop to her knees in jubilation. One of our own had just clinched a shock victory against badminton world No. 1 Akane Yamaguchi at the BWF World Championships.

The feat surprised many, both here and abroad. What a performance! Sure, she did not go on to win the title. That would have been a fairytale come true. But her spirit and the fight she displayed reflected how far she has come.  

In truth, Jia Min not becoming a world champion did not detract from the way we celebrated her victory. Her electrifying performance gave us moments to be proud of. These moments are celebrated whether they come with medals or not.

To me, I am interested to know if the athletes displayed fighting spirit, if they achieved their best, if they had competed with honour. It’s a bonus if they medal but I am always asking, how did they do? Not so much what did they win.

Such great performances are creating Singapore’s golden era in sports, when success and breakthrough are increasingly common. It is also happening amidst rapid sporting developments in the region. Today, we not only have medals, but inspiring stories to remember.

These did not happen overnight. We have come this far because a proper sports ecosystem had been built, refined and sustained for decades by Singapore’s sports administrators like E.W. Barker, Teo Chee Hean, Dr Tan Eng Liang, Ng Ser Miang, S.S. Dhillon and many more. SNOC, together with Sport Singapore and the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth, and our National Sports Associations are part of this ecosystem. There are so many who serve diligently behind the glamour of the podium.


The team behind the scenes

With some of the members of the Sports Science and Medicine Team in Clark – Hwee Koon, Liang and Kelvin

Their work is not immediately apparent to the public. After all, most happen behind the scenes and away from any media coverage. Some are involved in the selection, some are involved with the day-to-day training and build-up and of course, almost everyone is involved in the massive effort that is to participate in major Games. When I visited our support team in Clark City at the 2019 SEA Games, one aptly shared that “we ideally should fly under the radar”. Our support team often arrives way before other delegations and ensure that despite obstacles, everything proceeds smoothly for our athletes because we want them to single-mindedly get themselves ready to perform at their best. Our athletes never know of the near misses such as previously assigned poor training sites, the accommodation that was originally in poor shape, or the many contingencies in place to deal with any developments big or small.

Like everyone else, we know that there needs to be these support teams. But my goodness! I didn’t realise how extensive the effort and how remarkable their dedication! At every Games, I make it a point to visit them, thank them and recognise them for their wonderful service. 

Team Singapore is never just the athletes. While all our efforts are rightfully for them, we all make up the team. Our administrators – and by that I mean the managers, nutritionists, psychologists, physiotherapists, doctors, are the faceless bureaucrats and volunteers who ensure a contingent of more than 1,000 are taken care of so that they perform to their best.

With a veritable army of people, there will definitely be personal differences and views. I am glad that they set these aside and do not bring them to the competition. They rally round every major Games so as to ensure that there are no distractions for our athletes and that the public can whole-heartedly support our team.

We want to nurture all these as part of our sporting culture. At the micro level, we are working with Sport Singapore to help the National Sports Associations strengthen their administration and approach.

To ensure success, we need to transform our ecosystem into something sustainable, replicable and scalable. It needs to be a strong evolving platform that churns out better and better performances. This is where structures, systems and processes come in. Bureaucracy is a necessity and not a bad word. Excessive bureaucracy and factionalism, on the other hand, must be avoided.

The more good performances we create, the more stories we have to inspire us. The more of these will also mean a higher likelihood of victory. We need to grow this base to be as large as possible, so that it becomes a virtuous cycle.

But growing this base is tough. It takes time. It takes talent. It takes support from the whole village, a village of strong hearts, sound minds and stiff spines to make difficult decisions to do good for the long haul.

At the heart of the ecosystem, we need good sports administrators. I know that a few athletes and some in the public can be critical of them because of differences of opinion. Many were elite sportsmen and women who have fought hard for Singapore and brought us much glory, while many others have served sports in varying capacities for years. While their work is not immediately visible, they are critical to our success.


Nurturing public support

In order to grow our support and sense of pride, we need to amplify the good that is being done. Mainstream media, along with social media, plays a critical role. As a young country, we need stories to inspire people, and the media has the power to share our athletes’ feats and turn them into role models. And it’s not only our athletes who can inspire.

With the late gymnastics coach Zhu Xiaoping who dedicated a huge part of her life to sport

We recently paid tribute to our former national gymnastics coach Zhu Xiaoping after she passed on from cancer in 2017. Despite her illness, she persevered with training our gymnasts. She meant a lot to the gymnasts and if not for social media, no one outside the sport would have known that she had coached them to their first SEA Games gold medal in 2015.

We remember the giants on whose shoulders we stand on. After SNOC profiled Olympian basketballer Ho Lien Siew earlier this year, his story has been celebrated by the mainstream media and the International Olympic Committee even made a video about his exploits. A short documentary has also been made here about his life. We must recognise our pioneer sporting heroes who did not have the privileges the athletes enjoy now. In those days, our seniors managed with little or nothing. We understand that everyone wishes for more but this is a reminder for us to also cherish what we have and not take it for granted. 

Today, the media, both mainstream and social, can help athletes boost their profiles, attracting sponsorship, grants and publicity required to turn sports into a viable profession. We see this development across the world and it is great for the athletes. 

Invariably, as with everything, there is also a dark side. We can see how this unleashes a different dynamic. Egos come to the fore. Rivalries can become publicly unhealthy even as the media laps it up; it is news after all. Role-modelling can become negative. Constant media criticism can also affect athletes confidence and morale. What is already a high-pressure environment can become worse. We must therefore look out for the mental well-being of our athletes. 

This media space is a reality that we must all embrace. It can strengthen but can also tear down. It can celebrate but can also demoralise. We have stepped up efforts to educate athletes and administrators alike about how to engage in this space responsibly and effectively. We have also begun to address the issues of mental well-being for our athletes. 

We have come a long way and are beginning to see sports flourishing at various levels and to see good competitive participation rates at the various major Games. While there is much to celebrate and be proud of, we still have a long way to go. 

As the old adage goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. So whether you are athlete, administrator, family or community, let us all run this race together.

* The writer is the president of the Singapore National Olympic Council. He is also the Speaker of Parliament.