Tuesday 21 April 2015

Singapore plays catch-up in global sports arena

By Jonathan Wong, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2015

SINGAPORE'S growing reputation as a venue for world-class sporting events grew exponentially last year, with not one but two high-profile events joining the prestigious Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.

The first was the one-off international football friendly between Japan and World Cup hosts Brazil at the National Stadium on Oct 14.

The second was the season-ending event of the Women's Tennis Association, the WTA Finals, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium from Oct 17 to 26.

Reinforcing this growing stature, the SEA Games will be held in June this year at the $1.33 billion Sports Hub, the crown jewel in the country's push to become part of the global sporting landscape.

But while international sport is paying increasing attention to this Little Red Dot, Singapore has had little significant cause to celebrate its own sporting prowess.

Yes, there have been a smattering of improbable victories and front-page moments since the start of the millennium, but this international success has been achieved largely in just three major sports - table tennis, swimming and sailing.

The women's table tennis team unexpectedly toppled China at the World Team Championships in 2010. This was book-ended by a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and two bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics.

Before that, the last time Singapore managed a medal was when weightlifter Tan Howe Liang clinched a silver at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Swimmer Joseph Schooling has likewise shown world-class calibre. In Glasgow last July, the 19-year-old was second in the 100m butterfly to claim Singapore's first swimming medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Three months later, he won three medals at the Asian Games in Incheon, highlighted by his victory in the 100m fly, which made him the country's first male swimming champion since Ang Peng Siong's 100m freestyle gold at the 1982 New Delhi Games.

Three teenagers also put Singapore on the world stage last year. Aloysius Yapp, 18, brought home a world title as the first Singaporean winner in the nine-ball pool category at the Under-19 World Junior Championships in Shanghai.

The other two were junior sailors Bernie Chin and Samantha Yom, both 15, who created history in Nanjing, China, when they became the first Singaporeans to win gold medals at the Youth Olympic Games.

In the past 12 months, Singapore has also had a world cham-pion in silat (Sheik Farhan), captured a first shooting World Cup (Martina Lindsay Veloso) and celebrated its first men's singles Commonwealth Games badminton medallist (Derek Wong).

Another cause for celebration is the rise of Singapore as a world bowling force. The female keglers, seven of whom are ranked in the World Bowling Tour's top 20, are now regarded by many in the international fraternity as the main rivals of kingpins South Korea.

But all of this must be viewed in context.

For a nation of just 3.34 million citizens, such intermittent international success and the ability to produce a handful of world-class athletes is certainly commendable. However, the real challenge is not just to sustain this success, but to increase its occurrence.

Unlike the United States, Russia and China, which have had well-established systems of youth sports development in place for decades, Singapore - with a single dedicated sports school that opened in 2004 - resembles a little cog just beginning to turn.

Even at a regional level, there is an imbalance. A total of $80.77 million in annual government funding was set aside last year for the national sports associations (NSAs) and local athletes.

While this is a record amount, it is less than what Japan ($264 million) and Indonesia ($112 million) spend each year on their football programmes alone.

But that is precisely why this pragmatic country, once concerned more with classroom degrees than sporting dreams, is in a hurry to play catch-up.

Accordingly, the NSAs have increasingly looked overseas to hire the best coaches available.

In a way they are heeding the words of legendary American basketball coach Bobby Knight: "The key is not the 'will to win' - everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important."

The Football Association of Singapore's recent appointment of Michel Sablon as its technical director is seen a a major coup. It is hoped that the Belgian, who was instrumental in his country's rise to become one of the strongest teams in the world, will help revive a sport that has been in a tailspin recently.

The national football team is 162nd in the latest Fifa rankings, and tellingly is only the seventh-best side in South-east Asia.

The Lions meekly surrendered their Asean Football Federation Championship last December while the Under-23 side, whose quest for a first SEA Games gold medal in June looks far-fetched, has fared little better with a string of heavy losses since the start of this year.

Sablon joins a growing list of elite names working with the various national set-ups, including netball head coach Ruth Aitken from New Zealand, who guided her country to the 2003 world title, and Spaniard Sergio Lopez, a former Olympic Games medallist, who now heads the national swimming team.

However, they and other coaches and administrators face the familiar obstacles of national service and a high attrition rate in a country where an athletic career is rarely financially viable.

Much effort has been made to address the monetary aspect, with the $40 million Sports Excellence (Spex) scholarships - offering a monthly stipend ranging from $1,200 to $8,400 to athletes - already in place for 70 recipients across 15 sports, thereby adding some monetary security.

The former, however, is an age-old argument that has blunted the careers of several promising sportsmen, and its detractors point to the examples of South Korea and Russia. Both countries also have compulsory military conscription for male citizens but grant long deferments or even waivers should athletes achieve notable sporting results such as an Olympic medal.

The case of Schooling, whose enlistment was pushed back by two years until after the 2016 Rio Olympics, is an encouraging step by the authorities.

Indeed, Singapore has come a long way. The first foray into the Southeast Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games in Bangkok in 1959 - the precursor of the SEA Games - produced eight gold medals.

At the 28th edition of the biennial Games in June, a haul of 50 golds would be deemed the bare minimum by some.

The Asian Games offers another yardstick by which to chart the country's ascent since the turn of the millennium.

While Singapore bagged 14 medals at the 1998 Bangkok Games, the tally increased to 24 at last year's Incheon Asiad.

Crucially as well, the 24 medals were spread across eight sports - including a first in fencing - indicating a growing base of the local sports scene that is still at a relatively nascent stage.

But there is a long journey ahead as Singapore strives to find its sporting voice, much as it did in the Thai capital in 1959 when Majulah Singapura, composed a year earlier, was heard for the first time outside the island.

Finally, after more than 50 years, there are small signs that Singapore is slowly making inroads into the international conversation.

Swimmers making waves at home and overseas
By Jonathan Wong, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2015

SINCE the start of the year, Singapore's swimmers have been making waves locally and, more importantly, on the international stage as well.

Where once there was only Tao Li, a two-time Asian Games gold medallist, who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the world's top swimmers, the Republic can now count on teenage stars Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen to lead the charge.

Schooling, the reigning Straits Times Athlete of the Year, has long been touted as a star in the United States where he has been based since 2009.

His international stature increased last year after his silver medal at the Commonwealth Games and his gold, silver and bronze at the Asian Games.

Last month, at the NCAA Division 1 Men's Swimming & Diving Championships in Iowa, the 19-year-old University of Texas student picked up three golds and was one of the standout performers.

He became the first Texas Longhorn to bag the NCAA 100-yard butterfly crown since American Olympic gold medallist Ian Crocker achieved that feat in 2004.

Coincidentally, Zheng Wen, 18, was also making headlines the same weekend - albeit in a pool on a different continent.

His victory in the 200m fly at the Spanish Open was set in a time of 1min 56.85sec, under the Olympic 'A' qualifying time of 1:56.97. It was also the sixth-fastest time recorded this year and made him just the third Singaporean - after Tao and Schooling - to earn an automatic slot for the Summer Games.

Together with 16-year-old sprint specialist Darren Lim, who in 2013 clocked 22.73sec and came within a whisker of Ang Peng Siong's 31-year-old 50m freestyle record of 22.69sec, the future of swimming in Singapore looks bright.

With more than a year before the window for Rio 2016 closes next July, national head coach Sergio Lopez was delighted with the progress made by his swimmers.

He said: "Before, we just had Tao Li, but now there are Joseph and Zheng Wen and that's a good step for Singapore."

And while the nation's attention will be fixed on the SEA Games in June, when Singapore is expected to dominate proceedings in the OCBC Aquatic Centre, the Spaniard is eyeing bigger and longer-term goals.

"The World Junior Swimming Championships (Aug 25-30) is also a critical meet for us as these will be the swimmers that will take us into the 2020 and 2024 Olympics."

This is the fifth of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz

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