SEA GAMES ROUND UP: Singapore shines in new sports, but old bugbears linger

Singapore swimmers Quah Zheng Wen (left) and Joseph Schooling at the SEA Games in the Philippines. (PHOTO: AP/Tatan Syuflana)

SINGAPORE — Singapore athletes concluded the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines on Wednesday (11 December) with 53 golds, 46 silvers and 68 bronzes after 15 days of competition.

While the gold-medal tally fell short of its 57-gold showing at the 2017 Games – the Republic’s best away performance – it was nonetheless a respectable outing that placed Singapore right in the middle of the medal table among the 11 participating nations.

This was also the third consecutive Games where Singapore won more than 50 gold medals, as the athletes surpassed the 900-gold all-time mark and set 15 Games records along the way.

Of course, amid the medal haul, there were dominant victories, unexpected successes and lacklustre showings. Yahoo News Singapore looks at the most significant Singapore takeaways from the Games:

Swimmers spread the wealth around

Swimming continues to be Singapore’s gold mine at the SEA Games, with the swimmers matching their best-ever showing in 2015 with 23 golds. Coupled with 15 Games records, nine national records and 26 personal-best timings set during the competition, it was a very good tournament for the swimmers.

There were also encouraging developments: the 23 golds were won by 12 different swimmers, compared to six in 2015. While Joseph Schooling, Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Ting Wen continue to bring in the golds, there were new young winners – Jonathan Tan (men’s 50m frestyle), Darren Chua (men’s 100m, 200m free), Gan Ching Hwee (women’s 800m free), Christy Chue (women’s 200m breaststroke) and Elena Pedersen (women’s 50m backstroke) – that could herald a new generation of winners in the pool.

Joseph Schooling needs a major push

While the swimmers maintained their dominance at the SEA Games, the biggest star among them, Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, is enduring an annus horribilis by his lofty standards.

It is always jarring to see him underperform at the SEA Games, and he lost not once, but twice to compatriots Teong Tzen Wei and Darren Chua. And even when he won his lone individual gold in his pet event, the 100m butterfly, it was by the skin of his teeth – or rather the tip of his fingers – against Quah Zheng Wen.

With about nine months to go before he defends his Olympic 100m fly gold in Tokyo, tongues are wagging on social media about Schooling’s prolonged 2019 slump as well as – unfairly – his stocky physique. Yet, it would be foolish to count him out of contention, as he has shown a single-mindedness to prove people wrong throughout his career.

Undoubtedly, he still needs a big push to end his poor form, and the next nine months will be the biggest challenge of his extraordinary career.

Softball’s extraordinary triumph

Of all the 53 golds won by Singapore, arguably the most unexpected triumph came in the men’s softball competition. While the team have progress steadily over the past decade, few predicted they could overcome the dominant Philippines, who have won all but one of the 10 previous golds.

But they didn’t just win: they did it in style with a 6-1 battering of the shellshocked hosts. As the team celebrated deliriously at their monumental achievement, consider this: they were forced to relocate to a temporary location last year, as their long-time Kallang location was earmarked for development of new sports facilities.

The Singapore men's softball team excelled in winning a surprise gold at the SEA Games. (PHOTO: Reuters/Jeremy Lee)

That they made the best of their inconvenient situation is testament to their will to succeed against all odds. Hopefully, softball will be able to further solidify its talent base, and maybe secure a permanent home with proper facilities soon.

Minor sports have their day

Besides softball, Singapore’s medal winners are increasingly diversifying in terms of the sports which they compete in. And with the Philippines scheduling 56 sports in this year’s Games programme, it allowed athletes from more obscure sports to contribute to the sizeable medal haul.

For instance, underwater hockey is usually viewed as a quirky version of the more traditional sport of hockey, and few see it as a serious sport. Yet, those who did transformed Singapore into the regional powerhouse, as it swept all four golds at stake at the Games – a tremendous achievement for a sport which has flown under the radar.

Meanwhile, winter sports like ice skating and ice hockey continued to bring in medals for the Republic, even though many of the medallists have to train overseas to fulfil their sporting ambitions. Combat sports like kurash, sambo and jiu-jitsu are no longer events that Singaporean athletes cannot excel in, with mixed martial arts being a popular recreation in the country.

And who won the 900th gold for Singapore? It was chess player Gong Qianyun, proving that such minor sports can be major contributors in the Republic’s regional sporting success.

Traditional strengths that need to buck up

While swimming, bowling, fencing and table tennis continue to be strong contributors to Singapore’s SEA Games gold-medal haul, the same cannot be said for some sports which used to be traditional strengths for the Republic, namely sailing, shooting and water polo. They still brought home medals, but their gold-medal counts have dipped.

Perhaps the most stunning development was the men’s water polo team not winning gold for the first time since 1965, after being beaten for the first time in Games history by Indonesia. It was a sobering wake-up call for the tightly-knit water polo fraternity and, to its credit, it has promised a thorough review of the sport in order to bounce back from this setback.

Perhaps thorough reviews are also required for sailing and shooting, in order for them to regain stronger footings. Each of these two sports used to win multiple golds at any Games edition, yet could only garner one gold between them at this Games.

Whether it is because rival countries are improving faster than expected, or because the sports are struggling to produce new talents, the respective fraternities have to act fast to arrest the slide, as other sports are ready to assume their mantles should they fall into mediocrity.

Perennial bugbears continue to frustrate

And so to Singapore’s two perennial “problem sports” – athletics and football. Despite concerted efforts by the Singapore Athletic Association (SAA) and Football Association of Singapore (FAS) to nurture their potential talents, they continued to stumble on the regional stage.

It is a galling sense of “what might have been” had Singapore managed to produce athletes who could win even a small proportion of the 40-odd track and field golds available at every Games.

Sprinter Shanti Pereira was the lone spark for Singapore in track and field, winning two bronzes. (PHOTO: Sport Singapore)

Right now, only sprinter Shanti Pereira – who won two bronzes amid strong line-ups in the women’s 100m and 200m – comes anywhere close to challenging for gold. Most of the other athletes were out of medal contention, even as they posted personal-bests.

Of course, SAA’s ongoing legal dispute with Soh Rui Yong – winner of the 2015 and 2017 men’s marathon golds – keeps him out of Games participation. One can only hope that the dispute will be resolved soon, not to mention other minor tiffs between SAA and other coaches and athletes throughout 2019.

Its woes have not gone unnoticed. In the Singapore National Olympic Council’s assessment of Team Singapore’s performance at the Games, it quoted Richard Gordon, head of high performance and athlete life at the Singapore Sport Institute, as saying, “Swimming and athletics form the two core sports in the SEA Games programme.

“For Singapore to remain competitive in the overall medal tally, we need to put ourselves in a position to be competitive in the athletics programme where there are at least 40 gold medals up for grabs. Singapore Athletics and the athletics fraternity have a role to play in ceasing the in-fighting to focus on the athletes. If this culture persists, progress is challenging.”

FAS is also facing a major talent problem. After dedicating a big chunk of its resources to train up the national Under-22 side for a bid at finally winning a football gold at the SEA Games, it saw its plan fail miserably in Manila.

The Young Lions failed to score in their first four matches of an admittedly tough opening group, ensuring another dismal first-round exit. And then, the bombshell news hit: Nine of the players had broken curfew to visit a casino during the competition. Any morsel of goodwill or support was lost.

While it is easy for the two sports associations to cite poor player/athlete conduct as a key reason for stumbling at the Games, it smacks of poor talent management and development – with the sizeable youth bases that these popular sports enjoy – that has led to their perennial underachievement.

They risk slipping into irrelevance if they continue to underperform; more athletes will look to new sports to excel in. The time for wholesale changes in athletics and football is now.

SEA Games stories:

The best athletes of each country at SEA Games 2019

After swim struggles, Constance Lien finally wins gold in jiu-jitsu

Koen Pang caps stellar year with SEA Games men's singles gold

New Hui Fen cements brilliance, Joseph Schooling slumps again

Men's softball team, shuttler Loh Kean Yew score major upsets

Quah Ting Wen grabs 2 golds, men's foil fencers triumph in Manila

Joseph Schooling bounces back from shock loss with narrow win

Women's bowlers find redemption in winning 1st team gold since 2011

Schooling handed shock 50m fly defeat by compatriot Teong

Nazri wins 1st sambo gold as Singapore dominate underwater hockey