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SINGAPORE — Sports, admittedly, does not come naturally for most Southeast Asians, whose main concerns centre on making ends meet. And sports does not usually offer a lucrative career path in this region.
And that’s what makes the 10 outstanding athletes in this list all the more special, as they have to step out of the norm to carve out their famous careers in the last 25 years. In no particular order, here they are:
Manny Pacquiao (Philippines, boxing)
Far and away the biggest sport star from Southeast Asia in the last 25 years. Pacquiao is the only boxer in the world to have won in eight different divisions, and the only boxer to have become world champion in four different decades (1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s). More importantly, he captured the boxing world’s imagination with his impossibly-quick punches and relentless intensity. An absolute icon in this region.
Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia, badminton)
The tragic sporting hero, with his multiple and agonising near-misses – silver medals in the badminton men’s singles at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics as well as at the 2011, 2013 and 2015 World Championships. Yet, his unbelievable work ethic, speedy athleticism and never-say-die attitude on the court won him legions of fans – among them was his nemesis, Lin Dan. Sadly, true to his tragic hero persona, he was diagnosed with nose cancer and had to retire in 2019 without another shot at Olympic gold.
Joseph Schooling (Singapore, swimming)
It’s not just the fact that he is Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold medallist. Or the fact that, in winning that men’s 100m butterfly gold in 2016, he defeated Michael Phelps, one of the biggest Olympic icons in history. No, what makes Joseph Schooling special is his refreshing maturity in dealing positively with setbacks, poor performances and unfair online criticism. He almost always comes back stronger.
Taufik Hidayat (Indonesia, badminton)
The controversial genius. At his peak powers, Taufik Hidayat is an extraordinary shot-maker and a graceful court presence – not for nothing was he frequently compared to Roger Federer. But the Olympic, Asian Games and world champion is far more exasperating than the Swiss tennis maestro due to his frequent mood swings. He can often be disinterested, unfit and impatient with the crowd; and he has got into many clashes with coaches and teammates. Flawed? Definitely. Yet because of that, he was unforgettable.
Nicol David (Malaysia, squash)
You want dominance? How about this: 108 consecutive months as world No. 1, eight world titles, nine Asian titles and a 13-month, 51-match unbeaten run. Such is the sustained excellence of Nicol David that, even though she was playing in an unfashionable sport, her brilliance was being revered all across this region. It is no wonder that she was voted the greatest women’s squash player in a poll by the Professional Squash Association in 2018.
Chanathip Songkrasin (Thailand, football)
It is ironic that while football is by far the most popular sport in Southeast Asia, the standard of international-level football in the region is mediocre at best. So when a footballer is dubbed the “Thai Messi”, you can be sure Chanathip Songkrasin is special. He is the only player to have been named Most Valuable Player (MVP) twice at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship (2014 and 2016). When he won his first MVP award in 2014, he was the youngest ever recipient at age 21. A brilliant playmaker, he has been good enough to be plying his trade in the J-League.
Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand, badminton)
Has there been another Southeast Asian athlete who bolted out from the blocks as spectacularly as Ratchanok Intanon? At age 18 in 2013, she won the Badminton World Championship – the youngest shuttler to do so. In 2016, she became the first Thai shuttler to reach the world No. 1 spot. The humble and popular Thai – renowned for her relaxed hitting motion and light footwork – continues to contend in major championships, and she is still only 25.
Eduard Folayang (Philippines, mixed martial arts)
A rags-to-riches success story, Eduard Folayang escaped extreme poverty to become one of the most popular MMA fighters in this region. Under fight company ONE Championship, he was a two-time lightweight champion, and fought regularly throughout the last decade. His classic clashes with the likes of Shinya Aoki and Ole Laursen helped establish ONE Championship as the top Asian fight promoter.
Feng Tianwei (Singapore, table tennis)
Her sporting prowess brooks no arguments, but Feng Tianwei remains an extremely polarising athlete in Singapore. The China-born paddler, with her aggressive shot-making and indomitable spirit, was the final piece of the puzzle for the national women’s squad, as they ended Singapore’s 48-year Olympic medal drought with a team silver at the 2008 Beijing Games. Feng would go on to win an individual bronze in at the 2012 London Games, yet her achievements would be constantly dogged by discontentment that Singapore “imported” table tennis talents like her solely for glory.
Hoang Xuan Vinh (Vietnam, shooting)
Olympic golds are hard to come by among Southeast Asian athletes; outside of Indonesia (in badminton) and Thailand (in weightlifting and boxing), no other country in the region has won gold prior to 2016. The Rio de Janeiro Games said two nations clinching their first-ever golds – Singapore and Vietnam. At age 41 then, Hoang Xuan Vinh may not look like a top athlete, but his sharpshooting prowess earned him gold in the men’s 10m air pistol competition and the adulation of the grateful nation.
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