COMMENT: Joseph Schooling deserves empathy amid his steep fall from grace

Joseph Schooling at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (FILE PHOTO: SNOC/Kong Chong Yew)
Joseph Schooling at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (FILE PHOTO: SNOC/Kong Chong Yew)

SINGAPORE — How are you supposed to feel about Joseph Schooling right now? Should it be shock? Should it be sympathy? Sadness? Or perhaps even anger?

Here is a young man who had won our hearts completely with his improbable golden feat at the Olympics, a success story that most of us could only dream of – and now he has committed a transgression at the worst time possible.

It is as though the rug has been yanked off beneath him – and us as well.

Most of us would know that feeling of being undone by a terrible moment of madness. That is part of growing up as an adult in real life. Eventually, you will have to pick yourself up, sieve through the damage caused by your actions, and figure out the best way to move on.

The problem for Schooling is, of course, his name. It comes with instant recognition and near-universal adoration among Singaporeans. All eyes were on him when he did what no one in the country could manage, six years ago.

Six years on from Rio de Janeiro, all eyes are on the 27-year-old swimmer again, fairly or unfairly, as he – together with fellow national swimmer Amanda Lim – faces the music after admitting to taking cannabis, possibly during the SEA Games in Vietnam in May.

Trust issues have been damaged

There have of course been many arguments on the legality of cannabis as a recreational or medicinal drug. But despite the seriousness of consuming it illegally – as is the case in Singapore and Vietnam – that is not the crux of Schooling's transgression.

No, it is the fact that the transgression was committed during a period in which he was representing Singapore at a major competition overseas. Furthermore, as he was serving his national service (NS), he was given dispensation to disrupt from his NS to train and go overseas to take part at the SEA Games.

A lot of trust issues are at work here.

Firstly, the Ministry of Defence allowed Schooling to disrupt for the SEA Games on the basis that it believes he could bring medal glory home for the nation. Secondly, Sport Singapore has always demanded a high level of conduct from national athletes in international competitions.

Thirdly, the Singapore National Olympic Council selects the athletes for major Games partly on the expectation that they can keep to a high standard of attitude and behaviour. And lastly, the Singapore Swimming Association of course picks the swimmers who are unlikely to run afoul of the standards of conduct.

All these trust issues put upon Schooling and Lim have now been damaged. Can they be mended? Sure, but it would take time for the authorities to figure out how not to let such a transgression happen again.

In the meantime though, tougher stances against the duo are to be expected.

Amanda Lim (left) and Joseph Schooling smile and chat during the 4x50m medley relay at the 2018 FINA Swimming World Cup in Singapore.
Amanda Lim (left) and Joseph Schooling during the 4x50m medley relay at the 2018 FINA Swimming World Cup in Singapore. (PHOTO: Lionel Ng/Getty Images)

Unlikely to get chance at sporting redemption

But enough on the ramifications for the sports community. What will surely devastate the legion of supporters for Schooling – and Lim as well – is the depths of trouble they are in right now.

Their reputations are in tatters. Their sponsors might have second thoughts to be associated with them. Even some of their long-time fans might be shaking their heads in disapproval.

For Schooling, there is the added layer of him currently serving NS, with the Singapore Armed Forces maintaining a zero-tolerance policy towards drug abuse. He will be placed on a supervised urine test regime for six months; should he be tested positive during this period, he would be charged and sentenced for detention.

More crucially, he will no longer be allowed to disrupt his service for training or competition while he is serving his NS.

For someone who is already at the tail end of his sporting career – Schooling had said on several occasions that May's SEA Games could be his final one – the disruption ban may very well put an inglorious end to a magnificent run of excellence.

With 29-year-old Lim also winding up her outstanding swimming career, here's the thing that saddens supporters of the two swimmers most: they are unlikely to get their chances at redemption by returning to winning ways in the pool.

For Schooling, that would have hurt him the most.

Accepting him back as a sporting great

Whichever way you feel, it has undoubtedly been a steep fall from grace for Schooling.

His cannabis transgression is another blow after his well-documented struggles for form at last year's Tokyo Olympics, dealing with his father's death late last year, and juggling NS commitments with training for medals at this year's SEA Games.

Whether these struggles make you sympathetic to his moment of folly, the fact is that Schooling is held to a different standard than most because of his fame and success. And as a smart, personable and thoroughly decent person whenever I had the opportunity to chat with him, Schooling probably understands that his extraordinary success comes with immense scrutiny and responsibility.

Some will be quick to judge him on this incident, but perhaps it is better to be empathetic to his predicament. Even though most of us are not elite athletes, we all have experienced the unpleasantness of coping with one setback after another. Through perseverance, many of us managed to eventually conquer our demons.

And after soaring with incredible accomplishments for much of his young life, Schooling is now facing a long climb out from the depths. He does have a strong support team, with his strong-willed mother May and many other prominent figures ready and willing to give him a helping hand.

And sure, a sense of disappointment is understandable among Singaporeans of their greatest sporting champion. But let's not hound and shame someone who has brought immense joy to a nation with his winning exploits in the last 10 years. Let's not belittle someone who fell to a moment of weakness, and showed he is vulnerable just like the rest of us.

He is human, and so he erred. Let's be ready to accept Schooling back as a great sports figure once he overcomes his current struggles.

The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 19 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.

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