As the dust settles on the 2023 South-east Asian (SEA) Games in Cambodia, and athletes rest, recover and restart their sporting campaigns, it’s a good time to take stock of Team Singapore’s performances there.

Based on official reviews and views from the sporting ground, this year’s SEA Games can be considered a success.

Big deal, a sceptic might sneer. Regional games sometimes receive flak for being “kampong” games for minnow nations to have a chance to collect some hardware that they wouldn’t ordinarily have on the global stage.

It’s partly because games organisers often include local sports events in a bid to boost the home team’s medal tally, with the negative side effect of lowering the overall credibility of the games. At the 2003 SEA Games in Vietnam (in which I represented Singapore in fencing), capteh—the traditional pastime of kicking a feathered shuttlecock—was included as a medal sport. This year, Cambodia introduced a local chess game ouk chaktrang and martial arts kun khmer and kun bokator. Not quite familiar events at the Olympics.

That being said, Team Singapore should take away a lot of positives from the latest edition. Next year’s Olympics in Paris comes hot on the heels of the Covid-delayed Tokyo games just two years ago, and every major competition in the intervening period serves as a bellwether for the progress of our athletes.

Moreover, with stellar performances from the likes of sprinter Shanti Pereira and swimmer Jonathan Tan, which have helped further raise the profile of Singapore sports in general, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on our way to nurturing a true sporting culture here.

Singaporean athletes brought home a decent haul of 51 gold, 43 silver and 64 bronze medals. A total of eight Games records were set, along with 17 national records and 40 personal best milestones, which indicate a solid strategy and preparation plan that enabled athletes to peak at the right moment.

It was heartening to see Singapore’s powerhouse sports, such as swimming, water polo, table tennis, floorball, fencing and pencak silat, delivering medals. But so too did lesser-known sports, like hockey, cricket, and jiu-jitsu. Athletics, long-bemoaned as an untapped source of gold medals, also delivered pleasant surprises.

On the overall medal table, Singapore finished in sixth place, and the performance is decent for an away games, although a far cry from the record home games result in 2015 (84 golds, 73 silvers and 102 bronzes). At this point, it’s worth noting the progress we have made as a nation since independence in 1965. That year, when Singapore finished third at the South-east Asian Peninsular Games (precursor to today’s SEA Games), we won just 26 golds out of a total of 76 medals. Suffice to say, we’ve come quite a long way.

Singaporeans may have also come to expect more, thanks to the exploits of Joseph Schooling who won our first Olympic gold in 2016, and badminton world champion Loh Kean Yew who put us on the map for that sport. Para-athletes such as swimmer Yip Pin Xiu have also ensured that the Singapore flag is flown high at the Paralympics and world championships.

As such, it’s understandable that, while this year’s SEA Games weren’t exactly a demonstration of complete regional dominance, sports officials took the view that it’s a sign our athletes should aim higher for results at the Asian and world stage. A strong SEA Games outing can be a precursor to a similar performance at the Asian and Olympic levels, but I believe that it depends largely on the sport in question. A lot of it is relative, with no one-size-fits-all answer applicable.

In swimming for example, we saw young Jonathan Tan, not far removed from completing his National Service, recording the second-fastest time in Asia this year in the 50m freestyle and qualifying outright for the Olympics in 2024.

Track star sprint queen Shanti Pereira also clocked the fastest time in Asia this year in the 200m, before clinching the sprint double with the 100m gold to boot. These performances can truly be held up against world-class standards.

Fencing is another interesting case, with a record haul of seven golds in Cambodia. This was achieved without one of the Tokyo OIympians from 2021, women’s foilist Amita Berthier, while Kiria Tikanah, who represented Singapore in Tokyo in the women’s epee event, clinched a bronze behind teammate Elle Koh who won the gold.

Singapore fencers will be angling for a strong showing at the Asian Games later this year. However, the SEA Games fencing outcomes are less of a leading indicator than for sports with more defined, quantifiable performance metrics—contrast the head-to-head nature of fencing with timings across a set distance, for example.

Perhaps most heartening were the displays of sportsmanship by Team Singapore athletes. Consider Tikanah’s care for team-mate/semi-finals opponent Koh’s injured leg in the heats, and runner Soh Rui Yong’s effort to pass water to his rival in the 10,000m event on the track after the latter fumbled a water stop.

These demonstrate the best values that sports can bring out in each of us, and it’s wonderful when fans can see and appreciate them on a competitive stage. I swear it’s better than anything on Netflix. But it also allows our athletes to be examples and sources of inspiration beyond just the sheer grit and determination it takes to master a sporting skill.

Appreciation for all the different facets of sporting performances is a big part of building a true sporting culture in society. And this requires the effort and commitment of not just a village but the entire nation.

While national authorities, sports federations, high performance teams and sponsors all have vital roles to play, so does the general public. When each citizen develops a true understanding and appreciation for sports and sportsmen at their peaks and troughs, we will be able to rally together and provide all the various forms of support needed to produce athletes that can climb onto the top step of international podiums.

Some might argue that a broad sports fanbase will grow once the performances become something deserving of such support. But I think our athletes have already taken the first step in a variety of sports to show that they can and will deliver at the highest levels in the future. We can also do our part by getting to know the stories and personalities behind the medals, and to support our hometown heroes and local teams or clubs in various leagues and sports. More sports journalists can also spend more time covering lesser-known sports and personalities instead of focusing exclusively on obvious headlines.

A sizable public fanbase will attract more commercial money, which will in turn fuel the sport’s growth. When more support and encouragement is given to those choosing a sporting path, they may hang on for longer and stand a better chance of reaching their peak. And when more of us become educated about the many varied aspects of sporting pursuits, we will become true sports fans and also capable of contributing useful thoughts and ideas.

While citizens in a democracy must always feel empowered to speak up, much current criticism of the establishment, authorities and sportspeople for their shortcomings is often misguided or petty, in my view. It would be to our collective benefit to foster a climate of healthy, constructive sports criticism. Then we may actually start becoming part of the solution and not just contributing to the problem.

Sports have much to contribute to the fabric of society, showcasing as it does some of the best in human nature, resilience, compassion and respect, which are all elements of what we call sportsmanship. We would do well as a nation to embrace this.

As we look ahead to other major sporting events this year, and the Paris Olympics in 2024, I will of course be cheering our athletes on, both in their journeys to qualify for the games, but also to excel once they’re there. But more than anything else, I will be keeping my fingers crossed that we as a people can collectively cross the finish line to become a true sporting nation in the near future as well.

Nicholas Fang is the sports editor at Jom, and a former national athlete and sports administrator.

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