Beyond the Gold

With the London Olympics around the corner, it’s hard not to get caught up wondering about the possible medal haul of Singapore athletes. But as Satish Cheney reports, the path to the championship podium is more than about producing medal-winning athletes. It’s about growing an ecosystem that lives and breathes sports.
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Gunning for excellence: Shooter Jasmine Ser is one of 11 elite athletes being prepared for the 2012 London Olympics, as part of Singapore

The year was 1973. The 7th Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games, as they were then called, were being held in Singapore.

For two weeks, 11-year-old Lim Teck Yin would follow his father, who had taken leave and bought season tickets, to as many games they could pack in. Swimming, badminton, table-tennis, track and field, football – you name it.

“It was during those two weeks that I saw C Kunalan, running into the stadium, burning his hand holding the torch,” recalls Mr Lim, now 48, vividly.

The games kindled something in his heart – an admiration for athletes and a passion for sports. The young boy was infected by a sporting fever. Years later, he would go on to represent Singapore in numerous Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, sweeping gold medals in water polo.

Today, his life continues to revolve around sports. Mr Lim heads the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) that aims to develop sports champions and make sports an integral part of Singaporeans’ lives – the way his father made sports part of his life.

The SSC aims to cultivate a sporting culture, achieve sports excellence and create a vibrant sports industry. Sports, as marketed by the SSC, are a way to galvanise the nation to develop a strong sense of national identity and resilience.

Mr Lim and his team have their work cut out for them. For one, sports have always played second fiddle to other endeavours such as studies or career development. In a 2010 sports survey in Singapore, only 56 per cent of those polled played sports or did a physical activity at least once a week.

Also, each time a medal is won, critics question the use of foreign talent to represent the small nation in international sports – a strategy commonly practised by other countries.

 

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They ask where the Singaporean athletes are – an irony, considering the prevailing lack of support from society for people to pursue sports professionally.
The sceptics wonder whether Singapore athletes will one day recapture the imagination of spectators the way the country’s footballers did during the Malaysia Cup days in the 1970s through to the 1990s.

A limited talent pool?

Singapore officials recognise that the sports talent pool is limited in the Little Red Dot with its small population. “It’s an issue for Singapore in every domain,” says Mr Lim, “not just in sports. It’s an issue in the economy, in the Civil Service.”

But it’s a challenge the country has addressed well, he points out. “Around this region, in spite of our small size, we did well in the recent SEA Games coming in fifth out of the 11 countries in the medal tally and we’re one of the smallest countries.”

Nicholas Fang, President of Fencing Singapore, feels that a smaller population doesn’t automatically equate to a lack of sporting prowess.

He says the world is full of examples of small territories, such as New Zealand and Hong Kong, who have small populations and yet produce top-level athletes in a range of sports as well as Olympic and world champions. “So the excuse of having a small population does not fly.”

Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of the book Outliers about the factors for success, would agree. While in Singapore last year, he argued that it would be defeatist to think that talent is inherent and hence limited, when the real problem for many countries is “low human capitalisation” or the rate at which a community capitalises on the potential of its people.

In short, if we want more sporting talent, we have to think of ways to expand the talent pool locally and tap it more efficiently.

Need for society’s support

So, how do we make the most of our best resource – people?

Anecdotally, Singaporean parents show lukewarm support for sports. Teenagers are told to focus on studies and reminded that playing sports professionally won’t pay the bills.

Society’s overwhelming view of sports as an obstacle to a proper education and a safe career doesn’t help sports officials on the lookout for potential talent.

“This cuts the talent pool we have even further, killing off the interest of potential champions before they even have a chance to blossom. This certainly needs to change if we are to become a true player on the global sporting stage,” says Mr Fang, referring not just to fencing but other sports as well.

Leslie Tan, founder of local sports website Red Sports, also feels that society’s expectations tend to come in the way of potential champions.

“I see a lot of great talent from 13 to 17 years of age. After that, they disappear into National Service and further studies. Some even avoid playing for the national team because the setup does not fit their aspirations, or their parents’ aspirations,” says Mr Tan.

For Kenneth Wee from the Singapore Bike School, which offers professional cycling coaching, it’s also a matter of work-life balance.

“A correct work-family-life balance allows employees to pursue their own sporting interests, or for parents to follow the sporting exploits of their children. It’s no secret that positive parental support for the sporting careers of children breeds confidence and improves performance,” he says.

 

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Great Britain’s cyclist Sir Chris Hoy attributed his Olympics success to support from family and friends. The development of work-family-life balance requires the participation of multiple government agencies and industry.
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Towards a sports ecosystem

To create a “sea change” in Singaporeans’ attitude towards sports, the SSC is taking a holistic approach to invest in infrastructure and programmes, as well as reaching out to partners to sell the importance of sports.

Sports administrators are in the midst of creating a sports ecosystem on the island – a system of coaches, infrastructure, corporate sponsorship and youth development programmes that bring schools and the community together.

Developing champions is part of building up the ecosystem. Winning, explains Mr Lim, allows authorities to find out where they stand among regional and international competition.

A win validates the techniques used on athletes; a loss requires coaches to reflect. This all feeds back to the ecosystem, contributing to better coaching methods and hopefully a larger talent pool.

Most importantly, medal hauls raise awareness about a sport. They increase corporate sponsorship and encourage parents to support their children’s interest, hence strengthening the ecosystem.

But the SSC chief is quick to emphasise that the SSC’s work is not just about winning medals.

“From the time the SSC was formed, the mandate and the mission have been to try and encourage all Singaporeans to play sports – that hasn’t changed,” he says.

The hope is for the sports ecosystem to grow the talent pool by changing mindsets and encouraging more people to get involved in sports, especially at a younger age.

This ties in with Vision 2030 (see below) – an initiative by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and the SSC to engage public, private and people sectors to develop proposals on how sport can best serve Singapore’s future needs.

As part of the Vision 2030 infrastructure, there have been proposals to have “Super Sports Clubs” that will boast quality and comprehensive sports programming, acting as bridges between schools and the community.

Mr Lim explains that such clubs can be vital when it comes to looking out for potential champions as well. “I was told Michael Jordan missed the boat in the mainstream national basketball selection and development.

And he subsequently took an alternative path through a community sports club and was discovered there and came up through the ranks.”

A thriving ecosystem might have made things different for Fencing Singapore’s Nicholas Fang. The former competitive fencer says his Olympic dreams were hampered as it was impossible to turn full-time – a commitment necessary to reach his mark.

Mr Fang had set his sights on reaching the Olympics in the late 1990s. He fell short of his quest despite trying his hand at the international fencing circuit for a few years largely because the key to success depended on training and competing in Europe. Instead, he had to shuttle to and from Singapore due to work commitments.

 

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“In those days, the concept of a fulltime, professional athlete in my sport was unheard of in Singapore, meaning that I had to work to sustain my passion for my sport,” he says. Although government funding is higher today than before, Mr Fang thinks it’s still not enough to fund a full-time athlete lifestyle.

“This means that I was, and we still are, up against professional athletes from other countries who are fully supported and have access to the best coaching and competition experience at their doorstep.”

Mr Fang appreciates the ideals behind Vision 2030 and agrees that only by changing mindsets can Singapore sports grow.

Mr Wee says the current ecosystem of infrastructure, talent development and coaching is under-funded, under-developed and under-appreciated. He believes more investments need to be put into infrastructure and marketing.

“In cycling, one crucial piece of the puzzle is also missing – marketing. In order to nurture our young talents and create a well-lubricated feeder pipeline of riders to the national level, we need to market all disciplines of cycling in a local context and our heroes and champions creatively, generating revenue that can then be put back into making cycling attractive and lucrative,” he says.

There are a number of other obstacles for Wee, who laments that it is tough to introduce a new co-curricular activity (CCA) to schools without the Ministry of Education (MOE) taking the lead. This can reduce the number of young people taking up a certain sport.

Mr Wee, whose bike school is helping to prepare some athletes for the 8th ACC BMX Championship in 2013 and future SEA Games, says he is also unable to get support for his team as they are not considered national athletes yet. He says that, to qualify, they need to first produce results in competition – a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation for budding athletes.

He points out that in neighbouring countries, local BMX races are frequently televised. Private enterprises invest in building corporate branded community tracks and are developing junior and professional teams.

This is exactly the vision the SSC has of the sports ecosystem: private enterprises stepping in to support athletes at community and professional levels; and a sports marketing industry that will make the business of sports more lucrative.

Seeking good coaches

The Achilles heel of the ecosystem may well be the coaches – or the lack of good ones. Mr Lim admits this is the one area that needs the most attention.

“I was watching a school football training… the first thing that came to my mind from my own training at the elite level was that it wasn’t intense enough. You can see it in the drills – they lacked intensity. Second, they lacked deliberate purpose,” he shares.

Coaches, he agrees, can make or break an athlete’s career.

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I wouldn’t have been a national water polo player if I didn’t have an avenue through the university because in my school days, I got nowhere.

“I didn’t have the right guidance, the coaching environment, and I didn’t make the national team until I hit the university. It was only in NUS where everything came together – the coach and fellow teammates,” reveals Mr Lim.

This is what Mr Gladwell means by low capitalisation rate. Mr Lim had the potential to be an outstanding athlete, yet he wasn’t discovered, until much later. How many other potential athletes could have been overlooked the same way but were not lucky enough to get a second chance?

Mr Fang, who has been reviewing the Singapore fencing team’s dismal performance at the recent SEA Games where they failed to bag any of their five targeted gold medals, says having good coaches is tied with creating an ecosystem.

 

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“Until a sport is seen as a valued endeavour which contributes greatly to society, we will not see ancillary services such as coaching and sports administration grow in any meaningful way.”

So, while critics have lambasted the sports fraternity for the lack of credible performances at the international stage, it may bode well to pause and consider the various factors at play, such as the social stigma against sports and the need for a stronger ecosystem.

Ultimately, what needs to be done has to go beyond merely producing medal-winning athletes. It’s building a nation that lives and breathes sports, so that eventually the selection for sporting talent comes more easily. When that happens, it won’t be that tough to get spectators to relive the glory days of the Malaysia Cup.

Vision 2030

Vision 2030 is an initiative launched in July 2011 to use sports as a strategy for individual development, community bonding and nation-building in the next two decades.

The SSC is engaging people and private enterprises beyond the sporting community to draft a masterplan that will create a sporting landscape for everyone living here. This will include considerations such as an ageing population, a shrinking workforce, and increasing pressure of living in an urban environment.

Launched in July 2011, Vision 2030 has had more than 500 face-to-face discussions with people from all walks of life, and another 2000 people have been engaged through the website www.vision2030.sg. Preliminary recommendations were posted to the Vision 2030 website in mid-February 2012. The public are invited to “join the conversation” by sharing their ideas, opinions and feedback on how to use sport as a strategy for the nation.

Show me the money

There’s been criticism that there are too many National Sports Associations in Singapore – all tussling for a piece of the government funding pie. But Mr Lim says it’s not the SSC’s job to judge what sports Singaporeans are interested in.

“My job is to judge where government funding goes. Not all NSAs receive funding,” he says.

With the footballers’ lacklustre showing at the recent SEA Games, Singaporeans have questioned why the Football Association of Singapore continues to receive strong funding support.

Mr Lim says “wins” are not the only considerations when it comes to funding an NSA. The SSC also considers whether the funding benefits a larger group of Singaporeans.

“Let’s take a sport like water polo. Would you argue that I give more money to water polo than I give to football? Because we win gold medals all the time and Singaporeans are very proud of our water polo team? The answer is no.”

  • POSTED ON
    Mar 13, 2012
  • PHOTOS BY
    Yip Siew Fei using images by John Heng for the Singapore Sports Council.
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