Olympics: Passion is not always enough for sustained appearances at sport's top table

08 Aug 2021

Straits Times, 8 Aug 2021, Olympics: Passion is not always enough for sustained appearances at sport's top table
For some in the Team Singapore contingent at the Olympic Games, scoresheets will soon be traded for resumes and mundane water cooler chats in the office could replace fiery pep talks by coaches.

The sun is setting on the Games here and with it, the elite-level sporting pursuits of some Singaporeans in the Japanese capital.

The Republic was represented by 23 athletes - 17 of whom are debutants - across a record 12 sports at these Olympics.

And while this diversity has been lauded, a handful of these athletes have already stated that Tokyo 2020 would represent their final involvement at the Olympics, with academic or job pursuits being their main reasons for calling time.

This is not new. Since the Sydney Games in 2000, Singapore has sent 89 different athletes to sport's top competition. Less than a third of them - 26 - have been to multiple Olympics.

At Saturday's (Aug 7) campaign review, Singapore Sport Institute (SSI) chief Toh Boon Yi said addressing this attrition and extending the longevity of elite athletes is high on the agenda.

"There's a lot of learning that goes on, and those lessons should ideally not go away after one cycle," he said. "You have to campaign for multiple cycles in order to do well, because experience (at the Games) really counts."

This, said chef de mission Ben Tan, requires a "maturing" of the sports eco-system and culture in Singapore, where young adults are expected to concentrate on academia and forging a career.

Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) secretary-general Chris Chan said the attrition rate will remain until athletes are assured "bread and butter" issues are unaffected by the Olympic pursuit.

Jonathan Chan, 24, who is the first Singaporean male diver to compete at the Olympics, is one of those ready to throw in the towel.

He has spent more than half his life juggling sport with schoolwork or national service, and even had to work on his final-year project in the Olympic Village in the days leading up to his event.

The final-year architecture major at the Singapore University of Technology and Design said: "People think just because we reach this level that we are full-time athletes. But in reality we are just stretched like crazy… Where can sport take us if we don't have school or a job?"

The SSI, stressed Toh, has several support schemes in place to support national athletes.

Of the 23 in Tokyo, 13 are spexScholars who receive a monthly stipend of between $1,800 and $8,400, with Olympic-level athletes in the highest tier. Almost 70 scholars are working towards Paris 2024, said Toh.

But the scheme does not cover all athletes.

Non-scholars, for example, get carded funding which might amount to "a few hundred" a month, which can be wiped out with just one sports massage or chiropractor session per week, one Olympian told The Sunday Times.

A host of companies have also joined the spexBusiness network, which was set up as an avenue for national athletes to get career development support such as employment opportunities.

Toh noted that a significant mindset shift is still needed as the eco-system does not comprise just the SNOC and SSI.

"People's attitudes need to change, whether they are parents, the individual athletes themselves, employers, or the general public," he said.

Deloitte South-east Asia, part of the spexBusiness network, has hired over 110 athletes since 2014, including windsurfer Amanda Ng, who competed in the RS:X event.

Its sports business group leader James Walton said he has had only positives from his experiences with athletes-turned-colleagues, observing they tend to be driven and adept at thinking on their feet when solving problems.

Still, there are challenges, for example, managing the expectations of an athlete joining the workforce at a later stage than his peers. Walton recounted one instance where an athlete was hired at 32 years old, having graduated from university nine years before.

"Effectively they were a fresh grad… so are they OK with the fact that is their (entry) level? You can't bring them in at an eight-or nine-year level, which is a manager level, when they have no actual work experience," he said.

"It's a question of mentality, the psychology of the person and… how they deal with that."

Fortunately, parents of athletes, while concerned for their children's future, are beginning to understand what such pursuits mean to them.

Abdul Rahman, 56, the father of epee fencer Kiria Tikanah, said he would not disapprove if she wanted to aim to qualify for Paris 2024, even if she delays pursuing specialisation or getting a job after she completes her degree.

Kiria, 21, is a second-year chemistry student at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

"Through my own experience I know how it felt when my classmates found a job and I hadn't, and what more during this difficult time (of the pandemic)," said the former chief operating officer of a financial institution, who now does consulting work.

"But as long as she is happy and that is what she wants to do, I will support her. As a parent, watching her on the world stage in Tokyo also made me very proud."

Some feel tertiary institutions can play a big role in aiding the athletes.

Diver Freida Lim, 23, said her experience in the United States was vital in her making it to Tokyo. She graduated from the University of Georgia in May with a double degree in dietetics, and culinary science and nutrition, and praised the support she got as an National Collegiate Athletic Association student-athlete.

If her grades slipped, an academic adviser would call offering to schedule a tutor to help arrest the slide. When diving meets clashed with classes or papers, exemption forms were at the ready. And when she was not able to attend class, note takers were on hand to keep her clued in.

"In the US, I worked hard and did well and my sports (career) improved as well," she said. "If I had stayed in Singapore... I would have still worked hard and still not have done well."

Former national swimmer Mark Chay, a Nominated Member of Parliament who competed at the Sydney and Athens Games, said: "Our universities need to take a hard look at themselves and what their philosophies of education are.

"Is it just a narrow one, where you develop the individual only in the confines of a classroom? Or do they count the development outside of it, for a more holistic (philosophy)?

"We should see sports, and arts for that matter, as co-curricular, not extra curricular."

Marathon swimmer Chantal Liew, a communications and new media undergraduate at NUS, said the higher education system is "inadequate" in supporting sporting pursuits. But while she had intended to quit after Tokyo, she is weighing the idea of pressing on.

Liew, 22, said: "The culture we have sometimes makes you feel like an athlete's career path is worthless. With everything against me doing sport, and me entertaining thoughts of wanting to continue, I must really love it."

Chay agreed, noting that the individual athlete's drive is most crucial. With the standard of the Olympics today so high, it would require a sustained commitment level of a professional for an individual to be in the frame for repeat appearances at the Games.

Only the athlete can decide if he or she is willing to take the steps and sacrifices such as securing financial backing through sponsors or even crowdfunding, needed to get there. Rower Joan Poh, a nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, who was also in Tokyo, is a familiar tale.

"The reality today is that the Olympics are the pinnacle of sports, with the best athletes. And if the best are seeing it as a career... then you have to do that to," he said.