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How Schooling’s gold could change S’pore sport

Cynics will ask: Will the gold have lasting effects? Asia has seen this all before — in Japanese football as well as Indian cricket

Joseph Schooling poses with his parents at Changi Airport on Aug 14. TODAY file photo.

Joseph Schooling poses with his parents at Changi Airport on Aug 14. TODAY file photo.

Singapore enjoyed a whirlwind of a week following Joseph Schooling’s victorious performance in the Olympics’ 100m butterfly final on Aug 12. He beat swimming legend Michael Phelps to the wall and his win is potentially a game changer for Singapore sport.

Schooling’s Olympic gold medal is the country’s first. He has made history, instilled pride, inspired athletes, and made local corporations sit up and take notice. But more than that, the 21-year-old is presenting Singapore with a unique proposition. He has brought the country to a tipping point in Singapore’s sporting culture, and perhaps sparked a change in our sporting eco-system.

The Schooling impact provides study points for territories throughout Asia. Most Asian countries, like Singapore, are focused on academics as the best way to set young minds on a path to a viable career, and a stable life. But there are a couple of ways to break this trend. One is a combination of driving a sporting culture and incentivising sporting excellence, the other perhaps speaks louder to the emotional core of men: Heroes.

In August, we saw an outpouring of emotion from Singaporeans, thousands of whom thronged the streets as Schooling toured parts of the island on an open-top bus.

He has seen his face on full-page ads in local newspapers, frequent references to his win on television, and even celebratory discounts at various retail establishments.

Schooling went to visit his alma mater, Anglo-Chinese School (Junior), and already there were young swimmers who have declared their intention to follow in Schooling’s footsteps to the very pinnacle of the sport.

Cynics will ask: Will any of this have lasting effects?

Asia has seen this all before — in Japanese football as well as Indian cricket.

Japanese football was pushed past the tipping point by a reluctant footballer in the late 1990s, a man dubbed the David Beckham of Asian football. One who not only inspired his home country, but also changed the world’s impression of footballers from the region: Hidetoshi Nakata.

He helped Japan qualify for the 1998 FIFA World Cup finals in France where the East Asian country made its first ever appearance at football’s showpiece event.

Japan may have lost all three matches there, but Nakata’s performances earned him a move from Japanese club Bellmare Hiratsuka to Italian Serie A side Perugia.

Nakata would be the second Japanese player in the Serie A — after Kazu Miura — and at the time of his move, was the only Japanese footballer plying his trade outside the J-League. Twenty Japanese journalists were stationed in Perugia then, to feed the Nakata frenzy back home, where 70,000 of the Serie A club’s shirts were immediately bought by his fans back home.

There are now more than 250 Japanese footballers playing professionally around the world, with 40 in Europe’s top leagues. Japan have qualified for every World Cup final since their Nakata-inspired debut in 1998, making to the round of 16 twice, in 2002 and 2010. They also won the Asian Cup thrice more after their first in 1992, making them the most triumphant of any team in the series. From an Asian powerhouse, Japan has gone on to become a global force of some reckoning.

The tipping point usually comes through success at the international level, success that is backed by good sporting infrastructure and a commercial programme that allows brands to come into the sport.

The Japanese had a growing J-League when Nakata left, and his success story inspired a generation of young footballers for whom success on the global stage was no longer just a pipe-dream, but within the realm of possibility.

The Indian cricket example — while it is not centred on one particular hero — is another that has changed the face of a sport in Asia.

Winning the cricket World Cup in 1983, when none believed they could, India woke up to the fact that they could be world-beaters. This is necessary for any paradigm shift.

Then came changes in the format of the sport — from test series lasting for five days, to one-day internationals, and now to the shorter, sharper T20 format that is made for television.

Cricket had touched the hearts of just about every Indian, and now a sport that is ingrained in the national psyche has become more commercially viable because the sport is televised, and has tremendous potential for companies. Cricket players can now become millionaires, and young boys dream of playing the sport.

Singapore has a strong swimming grassroots, and a world-class facility in the OCBC Aquatic Centre, which has already hosted the sport’s elites, as a platform for sporting excellence. A global financial hub, Singapore is an affluent country, with 2015 reports placing it in the top five in the world for countries with the highest number of millionaires per capita.

“The problem with Singaporeans in general is that they don’t believe in themselves, as coaches, as individuals, that they can be the best, or lead people to be the best. There is no secret potion, or secret recipe (to success),” said Schooling’s coach, Sergio Lopez, to this newspaper.

Lopez himself was an Olympic medallist, winning bronze for Spain at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

“I sure hope Singapore capitalises on what has happened (first Olympic gold medal) and establishes itself as a top sports nation in the world the same way Singapore has done financially and educationally.”

And now Schooling has inspired belief. Singapore may be a country with a small population — 5.54 million — and hence a small domestic market. But with financial, as well as sporting, infrastructures in place, Schooling’s gold medal could well be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in the way its people and corporations treat swimming — and perhaps other sports too.

Singapore is clearly mad about at least one other sport: Football.

It paid US$250 million (S$340 million) for the rights to watch the English Premier League for the period of 2013 to 2016, with only Thailand — a country with a population of 68 million — paying more (US$325 million) for the privilege. (But that is a matter that requires a thesis of its own.)

For now, it would be interesting to watch how Singapore rallies behind its first Olympic champion. He is now eyeing world records and this can further push how the country builds on sports, which can have a positive impact across all aspects of life.


Ashoke Sengupta is the Managing Director – Asia & Middle East, at Lagardère Sports

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