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What does a successful 2022 SEA Games mean for Singapore sports?

As the sun sets on the closing ceremony of the one-year-delayed 2021 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the usual trope has been dispensed in the reviews of the performance of Team Singapore.

What does a successful 2022 SEA Games mean for Singapore sports?

Singapore women's bowling team won the gold medal in the team event at the SEA Games in Vietnam on May 19, 2022.

As the sun sets on the closing ceremony of the one-year-delayed 2021 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the usual trope has been dispensed in the reviews of the performance of Team Singapore.

Despite there being no official targets set prior to the games in Hanoi, officials have declared that Singaporean athletes have “met expectations” and performed admirably. I would not disagree.

The contingent of 424 athletes clinched 47 gold, 46 silver and 71 bronze medals across 33 sports, marking the country’s third-best showing at an away SEA Games, with a significantly smaller contingent that brought back the best and second-best set of results.

Singaporean athletes also set five Games records, 16 national marks, and 41 personal bests, all signs of successful and well-planned training and periodisation strategies to ensure that they arrived in Vietnam ready to do their absolute best.

The Republic also demonstrated regional dominance by topping the medal table in sports such as swimming, fencing and bowling.

Their contributions helped Singapore mine 21 gold, 11 silvers and 12 bronze medals in swimming as they finished the top nation in their sport, as did fencing (6-4-5) and bowling (3-1-3).

Singaporean competitors in other sports such as athletics and pencak silat were also lauded for their best-ever showing at the biennial Games in decades.

The fact that many of these sterling performances were recorded by Team Singapore's 245 debutants — comprising 57 per cent of the contingent — is a nod to the talent identification and development efforts of many national sports associations, and bodes well for the future.

But what can the Hanoi Games tell us about Singapore sport, given the world-beating performances we sports fans have been treated to in recent years, thanks to stars such as Joseph Schooling and Loh Kean Yew?

And what lessons can we take away as we look to the next SEA Games (just one year away), the Paris Olympics in 2024, and looking to a further horizon, the 2029 SEA Games, which are returning to Singapore shores again?

'KAMPUNG GAMES' NO MORE?

There was often a disparaging view of the SEA Games in sporting circles in the region as being a “kampung” or “village” competition.

This was as much a critique of the level of sporting prowess of Southeast Asian athletes versus their global counterparts, as the fact that the nature of the competition meant that host nations could introduce “traditional” sports that reflected their culture and heritage (capteh anyone?).

Taking nothing away from non-mainstream sports and events, their inclusion meant that, compared to the Olympics or even Asian Games, it appeared that the SEA Games were at the bottom of the pecking order, which coloured perceptions of winning performances at the Games.

This can be seen in the monetary rewards offered under the Major Games Award Programme administered by the Singapore National Olympic Council, which as expected pays out the least for SEA Games golds (silvers and bronzes do not even merit an award).

For illustration purposes, the S$10,000 paid out for a SEA Games victory is 1 per cent of the amount secured by Schooling for Singapore’s only Olympic gold so far.

That being said, the SEA Games are by no means an easy competition. In each of the four editions I competed in starting from 2001, I remember being far more stressed and pressured compared to higher levels of competition.

It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it first hand, but at the SEA Games level, because only 10 nations qualify to send athletes, everyone believes they have a chance to win, including their supporters.

This creates a far more cutthroat environment where vociferous home-ground support can make a difference, compared to events where there were more countries competing and the attention is more dissipated.

If we look at some of the athletes’ performances in Hanoi, it’s clear that the level of competition from our regional neighbours is getting higher as well.

In that sense, the SEA Games represent a great opportunity for budding Team Singapore athletes to test themselves in a challenging cauldron against tough opponents on their journey to becoming world-beaters.

The fact that more than half of this year’s contingent were debutants suggests that our sporting authorities are of the same view, and this should be our strategic direction going forward.

The 31st SEA Games is the fencers' best showing at the regional competition, surpassing the four golds won at the 2019 edition of the Games in the Philippines.

MORE INTELLIGENT DEBATE

Another encouraging aspect of the latest games was that there seemed to be more interesting stories about our athletes, and broader appreciation for such stories beyond a traditional focus on results and specific outcomes, and whether the football team would ever make it to the semi-finals of the tournament again.

In the lead-up to the competition, and throughout the two weeks of action, there were numerous stories in traditional, digital and social media, highlighting the human journeys behind the podium appearances.

These included features on young competitors such as the 14-year-old Elle Koh who snagged gold in the women’s epee fencing individual contest, and Lim Yao Xiang, who flew the flag for all of us ageing athletes by representing the country in fin swimming at the ripe old (sporting) age of 40.

These and other stories were accompanied by what appears to me to be relatively more intelligent and reasoned debate surrounding sports in Singapore.

A case in point would be Schooling’s call for a national debate on the impact of compulsory National Service (NS) on male athletes seeking to represent the country at the same time.

One could reasonably expect his comments to echo earlier calls for exemption or special treatment for elite athletes from conscription duties.

But he chose to raise the issue of public expectations of NS-constrained sportsmen, and how these should be tempered given the overriding need for universal and egalitarian NS as a key component of Singapore’s defence.

His comments won praise from many quarters as a constructive way to approach an age-old thorny issue, and was a remarkable departure from previous emotive calls for athletes to be exempted from NS given that they were “serving the nation” through their sporting exploits.

To have our lone Olympic champion elevate the discourse to a new level with a mature and reasoned perspective bodes well for the sporting community.

It was also notable that public reactions to our athletes’ performances seemed to have evolved and matured as well.

When favourites such as world champion shuttler Loh Kean Yew faltered in the men’s singles final, there was general commiseration and appreciation for his hectic schedule in the build-up to Hanoi, which saw him compete in the Thomas Cup earlier in May.

There were some complaints from those who felt he did not live up to his “favourite” tag and world champion status, but an unscientific poll of my friends suggests these were the exception rather than the rule.

Overall, these prevailing sentiments suggest a growing maturity and appreciation for sports within our sporting community and among the media and fans and spectators as a whole, which is a critical aspect of building a robust national sporting culture.

FASTER, STRONGER, BUT AIM HIGHER

The sporting calendar is a busy one this year, with the Commonwealth Games looming, and potentially a postponed Asian Games as well, depending on the Covid-19 situation in China. Individual sports will also focus on their respective World Championships and other major events.

With the next SEA Games just in a year’s time due to the delay of the Hanoi edition, we will soon see our athletes in regional action again.

The aim should be to build on the positive steps made in Hanoi so that Singapore can look forward to another record showing in medal performances when it next hosts the Games in 2029.

As we continue progressing as a regional and hopefully global sporting powerhouse, we should leverage on smaller events like the SEA Games to blood our young athletes, deepen understanding and appreciation of sports among a broader population, and imbue Team Singapore with confidence that we can be successful at sports despite being a small nation.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nicholas Fang is a former national fencer and triathlete and represented Singapore at four Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, among other international competitions. He previously helmed the fencing and modern pentathlon national sports associations, and was Team Singapore’s Chef de Mission at the 2015 SEA Games.

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31st SEA Games Vietnam 2021 Singapore sports

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