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Sports Hub’s real mission

SINGAPORE — The new year will usher in a milestone and a new era for Singapore sports.

SINGAPORE — The new year will usher in a milestone and a new era for Singapore sports.

In four months’, the Sports Hub will open its doors to spanking new arenas designed to host world-class contests.

Its centrepiece is the 55,000-capacity National Stadium adorned with the world’s biggest dome roof.

Over the last 12 months, builders and operators Sports Hub Pte Ltd (SHPL) have offered insights into what Singaporeans can expect to experience, which include classy hospitality, state-of-the-art facilities and the latest technology in ticketing.

If the marketing pitches mirror real life, they are of high standards.

Anticipation is also high on a promised year-round calendar of local and top-class international sports and entertainment shows.

But the Hub is not only a venue for Singaporeans to watch quality events.

It has to go beyond the limits of what the previous National Stadium — which was torn down in 2010 to make way for the Hub — was able to deliver. And this is to cultivate an eco-system where sports grow into a way of life among Singaporeans.

SOCIAL INVESTMENT

Its key mission is what then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew envisioned 30 years ago for the old National Stadium on the arena’s official opening. “Properly used, it can be made a great asset … people will be encouraged to watch and then to personally take part in sporting activities. Healthy, wholesome exercise and recreation can make up for the passive entertainment which filled the lives of many people.” The stadium should be “used not just (for) watching games, but after watching, to engage in sports and athletics”.

At the cost of S$50 million, the building of the National Stadium was a hefty investment at the time, but Mr Lee said it was a social investment and did not expect the stadium to turn a profit.

“Our best return,” he added, “is to generate healthy, vigorous exercise for the whole population, young and old, enhancing the valuable qualities we have — a keen, bright, educated people who will lead better and more satisfying lives if they are fit and healthy.”

But Mr Lee also did not expect the National Stadium to inspire local athletes to gun for international sporting glory. In fact, he said: “Let us not waste time, especially going out of our way to produce gold medallists whether for Olympic, Asian and SEAP Games.”

With a small population and a country in dire need of professionals such as engineers, technicians and skilled managers, the economy was then the priority.

Although the economy is still of paramount importance, the landscape and sports environment have changed dramatically over the last three decades. The ability of sports to bring communities together is now highly prized as a social glue by the country’s administrators.

With a growing appetite among Singaporeans to see their compatriots succeed at the highest levels in international competitions, the S$1.33 billion facility, with its top-of-the-line training facilities and scientific support to groom national athletes into world-beaters, must now help satisfy this hunger.

NUDGING THE NATION

However, this must only be a stepping stone in realising a national goal as the Hub is not all about winning medals.

As in 1973, it remains a social investment because, over the last decade and a half, the “best return” the first National Stadium was expected to deliver fizzled.

A 2010 National Health Survey revealed 52 per cent of Singaporeans did not exercise regularly and obesity rates were up.

The main cause is an unbalanced lifestyle among Singaporeans, made worse by the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s which increased connectivity with the workplace. So in helping to groom elite athletes, the Hub’s main task is to revive the goal of its predecessor and nudge a nation into taking up sports, whether for leisure or serious competition.

But the main obstacle in its way is new media, which has wired an entire world and kept many away from taking on physical challenges.

What the Hub must do, then, is to keep enticing Singaporeans to get out and pump underused muscles.

The first step is to regularly stage popular marquee events at the Hub such as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Championships next October to inspire converts.

The kicker must be sports that Singaporeans can connect with, said Mr Teo Ser Luck, Chairman of the Sporting Culture Committee (SCC) set up in 2006. “We got to have events that matter,” added Mr Teo, who is also the Minister of State for Trade and Industry. “If you take football, as an example, if we get to host world-class competitions like the Youth World Cup or Club World Cup, we can pull Singaporeans in droves to the National Stadium.”

But there must also be sports events such as the Paralympics and those for the underprivileged if the sports culture is to grip the entire nation, he said.

THREE THINGS

Mr Teo is also Chairman of the High Performance Sports Selection and Performance Sub-Committee. He added that three things are important in the short term for the Hub to take off successfully.

First, Singaporeans must recognise that sports is a viable career, whether as athletes and coaches or in professions in the supporting industries.

Corporate Singapore must also fully embrace sports, make it a key part of their operations to involve all staff and encourage incentives for active athletes. The business community must also recognise that athletes who are trained to win can use this discipline to contribute to the economy and that companies can benefit from them.

But above everything else, national sports associations (NSAs), most of which are run by volunteers, have to be transformed into professional organisations. They play a big part in promoting sports and must have the expertise to attract more Singaporeans to participate in their respective disciplines.

Mr Teo believes that for Singapore to become the sporting nation the SSC have set out to realise under Vision 2030, full-time professionals must staff NSAs. But he also conceded that as Singapore has a small population, it will be difficult for NSAs to attract enough sponsors to pay for needed expertise.

Said Mr Teo: “Many NSAs are now run by volunteers and I think moving forward, it is not going to be sustainable for key sports.

“We need to inject more professionalism, expertise and governance into these associations. This may mean more government spending to give them more buying power.”

Eleven months before the Hub’s opening, the Government announced a S$250 million package over five years. It will be used to improve infrastructure and create Super Sports Clubs across the island offering more sports programming for all residents.

The Hub is at the head of an ambitious plan to turn the country into a sporting nation.

But if this is to come about, the three pillars of community, corporate Singapore and well-oiled NSAs must be rooted on firm ground. Otherwise, the huge capital outlay on the Hub — the biggest public-private-partnership project in the world — and other infrastructure will be in vain.

SHPL will work their stake to turn a profit, but it is up to all key stakeholders to yield lasting dividends on Singapore’s social investment.

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