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POV: Be realistic in expecting Singapore’s top athletes to be serial world-beaters

Among Singapore’s sporting successes, two feats stand out.

National shuttler Loh Kean Yew, seen here with the gold medal he won at the Badminton World Championship in December last year, and Joseph Schooling with his gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

National shuttler Loh Kean Yew, seen here with the gold medal he won at the Badminton World Championship in December last year, and Joseph Schooling with his gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

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Among Singapore’s sporting successes, two feats stand out.

One was when national swimmer Joseph Schooling clinched Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in 2016, and another when national shuttler Loh Kean Yew won Singapore’s first Badminton World Championship gold last year.

Naturally, with such historic achievements comes expectations from the public that these athletes can replicate their success, and win multiple world titles.

But the reality so far is that both Schooling and Loh have yet to match their career-defining achievements or even come close since then.

The latest blow to a Schooling comeback came when he confessed to having consumed cannabis, and had all his sporting privileges revoked by the Singapore Armed Forces.

This saga casts a spotlight on the pressures and temptations that elite sportspeople face once they attain success and the harsh reality that these can often lead to a dip in form.

Veteran athletes that I have spoken to say that having one major world title is already a phenomenal achievement in itself, and staying at the top is far more difficult than reaching there.

In fact, athletes that manage to stay at the top — examples include Michael Phelps in swimming and Roger Federer in tennis — are rare. The vast majority of sportspeople do not succeed on such a regular basis, if at all.

So while it is not wrong to hope for our top athletes to continue dominating on the world stage, we have to be realistic and understand the gravity of the task we are asking of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that all sportspeople should train hard and desire to win as many medals as possible.

However, sports psychologists and athletes themselves have said Singapore’s sports culture falls short of giving our athletes the best shot at achieving replicable success.

For one, there simply aren’t enough “world class” athletes here. 

This means the likes of Schooling and Loh often find themselves being the only medal hopes for Singapore at every competition, and the busy competition schedules can tire them out.

In contrast, more established sporting nations are able to rotate a handful of medal hopefuls, allowing their star athletes to peak at major games.

Why aren’t there enough world-class athletes here?

Schooling’s former coach Sergio Lopez said few parents here would dare to pour all their resources into their child’s sporting dreams, as they do not believe sports is a pragmatic career.

In a nutshell, if we want to see our elite athletes repeat their global successes, we should first think of how to groom more of them, to raise our chances.

How do we get parents and young athletes to put their resources into sporting excellence? How do we create a competitive sporting ecosystem that can produce multiple world-class talents?

We must first answer these questions, before we heap untenable pressures on our top athletes by expecting them to be serial world-beaters.

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POV Sports Joseph Schooling Loh Kean Yew

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