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Reporting from Tokyo
TOKYO — By now it should be clear that Joseph Schooling's monumental swimming gold five year ago was more a glorious one-off, and less of a culmination of a systematic plan for Olympic medal success.
Singapore's first and only Olympic gold medal was won in Rio de Janeiro via a combination of Schooling's lifelong ambition, his exceptional mental fortitude, and a long series of astute decisions by him and his parents - with help from the sports community in Singapore - to ensure he got the right environment and coaching to eventually succeed.
This is the demand that sport's grandest stage exacts on an aspiring athlete – to win an Olympic medal requires a top-class support system to provide that extra edge against other competitors, whether within an athlete's inner circle or through institutional support.
And with 17 debutants among the 23 Team Singapore athletes at these Games – proof that more Singaporeans are daring to dream the Olympic dream – is it time that Singapore starts giving these sportspeople that extra supportive push in their quests for medals?
Don't just stop at applauding athletes for qualification
The oft-cited cliche for the Olympics goes, "It's already a big achievement to make it to the Olympics. Everyone who makes it is already a winner."
There is no denying that to qualify for the Olympics requires a near-superhuman effort, honed through years of constant and gruelling training. There is no way a casual, part-time athlete can succeed; most of the Team Singapore athletes have put their studies or careers on hold to earn their Olympic spots.
So yes, they should be applauded for their qualifications.
The thing is, every time when Singapore sends its athletes to the Olympics, the sporting community seems content to just pat the athletes on their backs, commend them for making the cut – and not do anything extra to give them a push for outstanding results at the Games.
Journalists are fed the usual lines of "we're not setting a medal target, we just hope they can perform at their best" from sports officials all the time. And while the clear intention of not setting a medal target is not to pile unnecessary mental pressure on Olympic athletes, it may also breed a sense of self-satisfaction that works against athletes being motivated to achieve their personal-bests at the Games.
Push for personal-bests at Games
Should there be greater emphasis on performance indicators such as "personal bests", if athletes have little chance for medals?
To some fans, it should be the minimum expectation for each Singapore athlete at the Olympics, but that is a tad too harsh. It is always tricky to outdo one's best result in a foreign environment, particularly if the playing field consists of top-class opponents.
That said, when most of the 23 Singapore athletes could not come close to achieving their personal-bests in Tokyo – you can argue that only paddler Yu Mengyu and sailors Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low had their best-ever performances – then perhaps a rethink is required on how to give them the best opportunities to do so.
And it's not necessary to insist on a medal target for the athletes to meet. What Singapore sports needs to do is to stop congratulating them too early, and instead provide as good a preparation as it could to give them a high chance for success.
Emulating Schooling's benchmark for success
The fact is that Schooling has set a benchmark for Olympic success. There was a gradual build-up to his Rio peak - a Commonwealth Games silver and an Asian Games gold in 2014, a nine-gold SEA Games haul in 2015, then an Asian-record race time and a bronze at the 2015 World Championships.
In the months leading up the Rio Games, he was still seeking that extra edge – such as bulking up for more stroke strength – to shave fractions off his race times. By the time he began his gold-winning swim in Rio, he was confident and ready to exceed his limits again.
Singapore's sports associations have to raise their games to that benchmark, in order not for Schooling's feat be a one-off. Do away with the mentality that qualification is enough, and start work years beforehand to get the Singapore athletes adequately prepared for the unforgiving competition at the Olympics.
Meanwhile, Sport Singapore and the Singapore National Olympic Council should help ensure these promising athletes get as much peace of mind in their studies and careers as possible. Scholarships and financial grants must be an integral part of the support system.
Not resting on laurels of medal winners
Singapore Sport Institute chief Toh Boon Yi acknowledged that there are always things that Singapore can do better to support the athletes such as in the area of medical treatment and sports science.
"Can we provide more intimate medical support? We can never say no, but it's a question of cost versus effectiveness for the sports associations," he said during an online media conference on Saturday (7 August) reviewing the Singapore athletes' performances in Tokyo.
"At this stage, we don't think there is any big 'red flag' where there has not been adequate support. But there are always more things we can do better."
Indeed, it is only right that Singapore should not rest on Schooling's laurels, and expect only him to be the perennial medal hopeful. Every athlete - Schooling included - hopes that individual or team success at the highest level can inspire others to similar heights.
The Tokyo Olympics is the first time since the 2004 Athens Games that Singapore could not win a medal. And while all the Singapore athletes have put in their utmost amid all the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that many had not been able to reach their heights means something needs to be done to set them on the path to personal bests.
Let's not just pay lip service to the athletes on making to the Olympics. Otherwise we would be devaluing Schooling's gold.
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