The Big Read: For SEA Games under-performers, the rot starts at the top
SINGAPORE — There was much hooting and cheering as Singapore racked up the medals at the recently-concluded SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur on its way to the best “away” showing — 57 gold, 58 silver and 73 bronze medals — ever achieved by the country at the biennial event.
The manner in which the feat was achieved was also cause for celebration: History was made on several occasions, from breakthrough performances in cycling, golf, and squash, which ended long gold medal droughts, to winning performances in new sports such as ice skating and T20 cricket.
At Team Singapore’s wrap-up press conference as the Games wound down, these feats were acknowledged by officials, who handed the athletes an A- grade for their “exceptional results”.
But while praise was the order of the day at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Kuala Lumpur last Wednesday, officials did not mince words when they singled out football and athletics as underperformers.
Mr Toh Boon Yi, chief of the Singapore Sports Institute said: “Obviously, we’re not happy about football’s performance. We all want it to do well, it’s our undeclared national sport.”
Toh also called for athletics to get its house in order as it is “not pulling (its) weight”, and described its performance as “way below par”. Team Singapore’s chef de mission Milan Kwee also called on underperforming sports to “go back to the drawing board and see how to sort out their problems”.
In football, Singapore once again failed in its bid for a SEA Games gold, not even making the knockout stages of the tournament. The Lions drew zeroes at the SEA Games in 2015 and again in Kuala Lumpur last month.
In athletics, the story was not much better. Singapore’s 29-strong squad won just two of the 45 gold medals on offer at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium, courtesy of Soh Rui Yong and Michelle Sng in the men’s marathon and women’s high jump, respectively.
Besides being given the ignominious label of under-achievers, both sports have one other thing in common: Fractious national sports associations (NSAs), riven by competing factions, that have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past few years.
Football’s woes have been well-documented. An election that was by all accounts messy, and lurid revelations about takings from jackpot machines at some football clubs — including two linked to presidential candidate Bill Ng — that resulted in a raid by the Commercial Affairs Department.
Singapore Athletics’ (SA) woes were no less startling. They involved, among other things, infighting and politicking among the executive committee that set the table for a snap election that was eventually called off, and disputes between a coach and athlete that led to the sports authorities stepping in to form a committee to take over the management of the SEA Games squad.
Given that the two sports are governed by NSAs who have a host of problems – with infighting the least among them – should it have been a surprise that they were tarred as underperformers?
National sprinter and hurdler Dipna Lim-Prasad, who broke the 43-year-old national record on her way to clinching a silver in the 400m race, summed up the woes of athletes when she wrote on Facebook: “This was my 4th SEA Games, and my best one yet. But as the euphoria fades, I find myself wondering ‘what now?’”
“The problems and cracks in our foundation remain. Internal politics and concerns with regards to support, funding and selection criteria are ever-present. Securing funding is a constant challenge for every athlete in Singapore. How can we look towards the future if the demons of our past still haunt us in the present?”
To many sports enthusiasts and observers, the performance of football and athletics, and the state of the NSAs which govern them, constitute irrefutable proof that, as the sporting associations go, so too do its athletes.
Former Singapore football international R Sasikumar said : “When you have issues at leadership level, obviously it’ll affect performances.
“For every action, there’s a reaction - when you put people who are not qualified, this is what happens. Everything starts at the top, and the buck stops with the guy who runs the organisation. I think it’s a systemic failure, so generally, sports fans should not expect anything.”
It is a damning verdict, especially for football, which has a rabid base of fans who cheers their heroes passionately and are not afraid to voice their unhappiness when the results disappoint.
To Lim-Prasad’s question - “what now?” - there are no easy answers. But the ground is stirring, and change is in the air.
ATHLETICS STILL STUMBLING
Singapore track and field has been mired in mediocrity for a number of years. Athletics’ woes on and off the track, in particular the infighting among SA’s executive committee, drew a sharp rebuke from Sport Singapore, the national governing body for sports.
Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin told TODAY at the Games: “We know that the sort of infighting and continuing discord in Singapore Athletics is not doing the sport any favours, and I think they need to take a hard look inwards. The management committee, the affiliates who vote them in, they have to ask themselves, ‘is this a sport that Singapore can count on, or (should we) be looking elsewhere for our Team Singapore high performance?”
For decades, the then-Singapore Amateur Athletics Association and its long-serving chief Loh Lin Kok were blamed for neglecting the sport and its athletes. Regarded as minnows in the region, Team Singapore saw limited success at the SEA Games, with throwers James Wong and Chinese-born shot putter Zhang Guirong among the few who delivered gold on the regional stage.
The change in leadership a few years ago did little to boost performances at the Kuala Lumpur Games, as infighting and politicking among Singapore Athletics’ executive committee erupted earlier this year. This forced Sport Singapore and the Singapore National Olympic Council to step in to appoint a major Games preparation committee to take over management of the athletes before the Kuala Lumpur Games.
Frustrated with the state of affairs, Soh, the marathoner, and high jumper Sng struck out on their own - training and competing overseas with some support from the Government and sponsors. Their decision to strike out on their own was rewarded in Kuala Lumpur. Soh successfully defended his men’s marathon gold, while Sng clinched the joint-gold medal with Vietnam’s Duong Thi Viet Anh in the women’s high jump.
That they were successful without the help of their NSA - or perhaps because they did not enlist its help - raises even more questions.
Soh believes the sport will only be able to move forward if Singapore Athletics gets its house in order. “All of them have to go…the sport needs to start afresh.
“But a lot of the problems originate from the constitution. How can you have affiliates who vote for the management, but the athletes and coaches are not represented?
“Maybe we should relook the constitution, as some of them are not even involved in the athletics scene.”
Drawing parallels with the problems plaguing football here, Sasikumar, who is the managing director of sports marketing agency Red Card Global, agreed with Soh’s assessment: “Football went through a tough time, and so did athletics, and it all came to a head.
“Only at major games can you see the strength and weaknesses laid bare. The athletes need a solid base in order to push on. Unless you get the house in order and put proper systems in place where you take care of the athletes, things will never change.”
HOPE FOR FOOTBALL?
Changes are afoot in the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) — following a historic election in April — but they cannot come quickly enough.
Local football has been in the doldrums for many years, with many of its woes stemming from a lack of good leadership, planning and organisation. The FAS is the highest-funded sports association here, receiving an annual grant of S$25 million from the Tote Board for football development and the S.League, as well as over S$2 million in funding each year from Sport Singapore as part of its annual national sports association (NSA) grant exercise.
While the FAS raked in millions in funding over the years, it has had little success to show for, with its national age group and senior teams performing poorly in regional and international tournaments. The S.League, which is currently in its 22nd season, has been plagued by poor attendances and funding for a number of years, with plans to inject life and rejuvenate the national league often meeting with limited success. The lack of professionalism and money at the S.League club level, as well as poor youth development and less-than-ideal school participation, also add to the problems facing the sport here.
There is a glimmer of hope for football, however, with a new FAS council headed by its president Lim Kia Tong in place. Despite its past failings, football is still considered the No 1 sport in the country due to its popularity with Singaporeans. Unlike other sports such as athletics, swimming or sailing, football has a professional league set-up, with players plying their trades at S.League clubs or foreign outfits in Thailand and Malaysia.
Added the Singapore Sports Institute’s Mr Toh: “We have to see this as part of a long-term process of development — and a lot of work is needed to continue to build the sport ... It doesn’t happen overnight; it takes years and multiple Games cycles.”
While that may be so, the SEA Games, and officials’ open chastening of the football and athletics’ leadership, show clearly that things need to change in the boardroom. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NOAH TAN