Monday, August 13, 2012

It's OK that Singaporeans not really into sports

Aug 12, 2012
By Rachel Chang

Singapore's first individual Olympic medal in 50 years seems to have ignited some sort of national identity crisis.

The victorious high over Feng Tianwei's bronze in table-tennis has ebbed rapidly into complex disconcerting topics like what it is to be a real Singaporean.

I think it's an equal-opportunity wariness applied to all "new" immigrants. I mean, if Eduardo Saverin invents a better Facebook, no one would really swallow the headline "Singaporean Website Changes Face of Social Media" either.

Implicit behind all the hue and cry is perhaps the acknowledgement (admission?) that a born-and-bred Singaporean could not have reached the heights of sporting achievement that Feng did.

Maybe it's that - and not the haircut or the accent - that makes her not seem like a real Singaporean because let's face it, this country fits with sporting achievement about as well as it does with cold weather.

It's not the small population size that constrains us. Look at Jamaica, with 2.8 million people and 10 medals. Nobody there is going on about how there's not enough talent for two "A" teams.

Sporting achievement seems to me to be a function of two things: innate ability and obsessive drive.

Assuming that the first is randomly sprinkled throughout the world's population such as albinos and midgets, then it's in the latter where we are falling short.

By obsessive drive, I mean the no- childhood, practise 15-hours-day, strict- calorie-control, no-interests-outside-of- sporting-area type of obsessive drive.

It is the kind of intense, singular focus that I believe comes only from having no other options.

Like a colleague recently observed, ping pong (and diving, gymnastics etc) is to the Chinese what basketball and rap music are to African-Americans: a way out of the ghetto.

If you have any sort of sporting talent at all, you latch onto it and you move to training camps and you give up seeing your parents ever again, because if not, what else awaits you?

A short, brutish life of tilling the fields or working 15 hours a day assembling electronic devices to provide for the one child you're allowed to bear.

That's a crass stereotype, which I mention only to illustrate my point that Singaporeans are just not desperate enough to achieve internationally in sports.

Of course, there are top athletes from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Let's just assume they are either so talented as to make obsessive drive less essential or that they are the exceptions which prove the rule.

Say, a Singaporean kid is a really good swimmer. He could forsake a normal life, not have any meaningful relationships except with his coach. He could win an Olympic medal or his career could be over in an instant with an injury, leaving him to be... a PE teacher for the rest of his life.

Or, he could just go through the education system, become an accountant, buy an HDB flat, have kids and lead an absolutely normal, wholly pleasant, completely comfortable life.

(Even if economic success eludes him and he doesn't end up earning much as an adult, perhaps $1,000 a month - he still can buy an HDB flat.)

How many of us, coming upon two roads diverging in a yellow wood, would take that first path? With all that sacrifice and all that fragility? And that moment of indecision alone, that awareness that there are other possibilities, other easier lives to live - that alone is impurity in the steel that world-class athletes' minds are cast.

As our founding Prime Minister would say, we're just not hungry enough. We could beat ourselves up about it. Or we could put ourselves in the shoes of a North Korean facing the prospect of returning home without a medal and feel kinda relieved.

Honestly, we should be true to ourselves and just admit that our hearts are not in this sporting thing. Let's just give everything we have to being incredible at what we are actually good at.

We're fantastic at hosting international conventions. We are world-class in building water purification systems. We pretty much have patented the whole Third- World-to-First thing. Footage of these achievements may not be able to play in slow-mo to an inspirational soundtrack, but they are still bona fide ones.

So no real Singaporean could win an Olympic medal. That's absolutely fine by me.

It doesn't mean we can't still be proud of those who found their obsessive drive elsewhere and are now bearing our flag.

When this ping pong thing is over, I wish Feng only the best - by which I mean a uniquely Singaporean, absolutely normal, wholly pleasant, completely comfortable life.

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