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SEA Games: I was driven by sponsorship saga to run faster, says marathon champ Soh

KUALA LUMPUR – Just days before departing from Singapore for the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, national marathoner Soh Rui Yong was issued a final warning and threatened with expulsion from the team for repeatedly flouting the Singapore National Olympic Council’s (SNOC) rules on promoting personal sponsors on social media.

Soh Rui Yong said he cut holes in his singlet to create ventilation for his body while running. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

Soh Rui Yong said he cut holes in his singlet to create ventilation for his body while running. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

KUALA LUMPUR – Just days before departing from Singapore for the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games, national marathoner Soh Rui Yong was issued a final warning and threatened with expulsion from the team for repeatedly flouting the Singapore National Olympic Council’s (SNOC) rules on promoting personal sponsors on social media. 

But the clash with the SNOC did little to distract Soh from making a successful bid to win back-to-back men’s marathon golds at the regional Games.

In fact, Soh said it had given him extra motivation, as the 26-year-old clocked 2hr 29min 27sec in Saturday’s (Aug 19) marathon race to claim gold ahead of the 15-strong pack. Indonesia’s Agus Prayogo, the race favourite for the 42.195km event, finished second in 2:31:20, while Malaysia’s Muhaizar Mohamad was third in 2:31:52.

Speaking to media after the victory ceremony, Soh said: “I’m kind of weird in that the more people disturb me the faster I run. 

He added, with a laugh: “I’ve been told my approach is not the most diplomatic way. (They said) I can do it after the Games, but I think before the Games was really the time to generate some traction for this issue. After the Games no one will care, it built added excitement around my race. People were saying it’ll give more pressure, but I say pressure makes diamonds!”

His decision to cut holes in his team sponsored running vest also raised eyebrows, but Soh said: “It was really hot and humid, I saw examples of this in the Olympics last year and United States Olympic trials.

"The less weight the better, the more ventilation the better. At 5km we were all sweating already. Cutting the holes is another thing that people are probably not going to be happy about.

"I kept getting warnings to wear the singlet, (and) not only did I cut holes I also shortened it was too long!”

Ahead of the SEA Games, Soh had run into trouble with the Singapore sports authorities, as the SNOC said that he had “reneged on his promises and repeatedly breached the team membership agreement” despite agreeing to remove the posts after a meeting with Team Singapore's chef-de-mission Milan Kwee, and team manager Yip Ren Kai.

He was issued a final warning letter advising him to cease the infringements, or risk being kicked out of the SEA Games team. 

Soh subsequently removed the offending Facebook posts. 

“I understand their reasons for this sponsorship rule, but at the same time, I think that athletes should have an increased say in some of these rules because it affects us directly,” he said.

“Most of athletes winning medals for Singapore, we come from bowling, swimming, waterpolo, but generally, the athletes from those sports have parents who are able to financially support their full time training. 

“They’re not making any money off the sport, it’s not sustainable, it can’t be just the rich kids in Singapore who can do full time training and be competitive at a high level.”

The issue is not confined to Singapore, as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio saw the controversial “Rule 40” – a bye law of the Olympic Charter – requiring athletes competing at the Games to sever ties with non-official Games sponsors, and adhering to strict social media guidelines. Errant athletes who flouted the rules risked sanctions and possible disqualification. 

Soh said that the situation makes it tough for athletes like him hoping to train full time, but he is hopeful that will change in the future.

He added: “It’s just difficult to give your sponsors enough bang for their buck…it’s the one month that you have the most social interaction with your fans. It really hurts the value of the sponsorship. I spoke to SNOC and they do understand, but unfortunately that’s the rules. I’m trying my best to play by the rules but I’m trying to give my sponsors enough value for their money.

Yip, Chair of the SNOC Athletes’ Commission, (above, right) has since asked him to join the group, and Soh said: “I hope to work together with Ren Kai to create change, I can’t say for sure if it’s going to happen, but it’s not really up to me. 

“Let’s hope for the best, I think that it would really help athletes if this rule was outed in that sense.”

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