No sports, no problem – How Singaporean Angelita Teo is changing the Olympics

Angelita Teo (second from left) with IOC President Thomas Bach (second from right) and IOC Director General Christophe de Kepper (left) upon the retirement of Francis Gabet, former IOC Culture and Heritage Director, Olympic Museum. Photo: IOC

06 Mar 2020

By Justin Kor in Lausanne

Singapore’s Angelita Teo now heads the Olympic Museum in Lausanne in her capacity as the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage Director. Photo: IOC

Three months before the Tokyo Olympics begin, an exhibition to promote the Summer Games will kick off in the Japanese capital in April, and it will have almost absolutely nothing to do with sports.

Instead, it showcases artwork related to Olympic culture and heritage, hosts educational tours, and has a decidedly non-sporty name – the Olympic Agora, referring to ancient Greek public spaces.

The person behind it is as Greek to sports. Ms Angelita Teo was a former director of the National Museum of Singapore, and had spent most of her career in the arts, more acquainted with Picasso than Phelps, paintings than pools.

But it is this unfamiliarity, if you would, that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was looking for when it hired the Singaporean as its director of the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage last October.

It is the highest post a Singaporean had occupied in the IOC management, and her brief was clear: to generate Olympic interest through non-sports ways, reaching out to new audiences.

“People tend to associate the Olympics purely with sport. But when it was first conceptualised by Pierre de Coubertin, it was really about the development of a person completely – mind and body,” she said in an interview on the sidelines of the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne in January.

“Culture and art has always been an integral part of the Olympics. This is a way of creating energy for people who are not traditionally Olympic fans. These are things that people don’t think about the Olympics – it is also an amazing creative playground.”


Figuring out the A-Z of the Olympics

Olympian hammer thrower Jennifer Dahlgren (left) donates her equipment to the Olympic Museum. Photo: IOC

It has been a steep learning curve for her after relocating to the mountainous Olympic capital of Lausanne in Switzerland.

She had to pick up common sports terms like National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and International Federations (IFs) quickly. “I was not from the sports side, so there were a lot of things I had to pay a lot of attention to. I worked on understanding the IOC as an organisation, and all its different moving parts.”

Her work goes beyond running a museum, contrary to what many believed. Sure, she helms the Olympic Museum and Olympic Studies Centre, and works with Olympic museums around the world. But she also oversees the heritage department, which manages every artefact and archive in the Olympic collection, and develop international programmes to work with NOCs to establish cultural activities.

The pace of work is hectic, she said. “It’s simply because of the way the IOC is organised today. In Singapore we know the Summer Games better, but there is also the Winter Games and the Youth Olympics. And these dictate a lot of things that you do.”

But the chance to make a global difference has given her an adrenaline rush through the recent wintry months.

From left to right: IOC President Dr Thomas Bach, IOC Member CK Wu – Chair of the IOC Culture and Olympic Heritage Commission, Angelita, IOC Honorary Member Ivan Dibos and IOC Member Valeriy Borzov at a commission meeting. Photo: IOC

“I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s a real opportunity here to make the world a better place, however small. Sports is an amazing motivation for so many people, and it is also part of culture. So I’m excited by that.”

To illustrate this point, she showed a brick-like book that has catalogued every poster of the Games dating back to 1896, all done by a single author. “It must have taken him almost 20 years. If you ask me what surprises me, it’s the people who are involved in the Olympics – they’re extremely dedicated. They spend their entire lives collecting, researching and writing for the Olympics.”

And the Olympic network is an illustrious one too, as she has quickly found out after attending her first IOC session in January. “I was sitting next to this lady who introduced herself as a new IOC member, and I was new too, so we just started chatting,” she recalled.

“I realised she was the ex-president of Costa Rica, and there we were just having a casual conversation. It’s an eye opener just being able to talk to these people, and suddenly you realise the world is indeed very large.”

The experiences may be novel, and the people captivating. But nothing can beat the food back home. “I’m trying not to think too much about it!”  said the Peranakan with a laugh. “Here, you can still buy frozen prata. But where are you going to find ayam buah keluak?”