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Para Games - where winning is not the only thing

For the past seven days, everywhere I walked at the Singapore Sports Hub, I was reminded of a popular quote about the Paralympic Games that goes: "The Olympics is where heroes are made. The Paralympics is where heroes come."

The week-long Asean Para Games (APG), which ended yesterday, may not be as well-known or competitive as the Paralympics, a major international sporting event, but it does not fall short on the inspiration meter.

Hopefully, it has also left a legacy that extends beyond the past week by paving the way for a more inclusive Singapore.

Earlier in the week, I strolled around the OCBC Arena - a two-storey multi-purpose hall - soaking up the atmosphere, and one scene in particular replays in my head.

Malaysian badminton player Huzairi Abdul Malek, his semi-final match lost, walks out of Hall 2, a picture of disappointment. A spectator, whose son is in a wheelchair, stops Huzairi. The boy, unable to walk, wants a photograph with the shuttler, who has a twisted right arm, yet whose feet seem to dance on the badminton court.


ST ILLUSTRATIONL : MIEL

In many ways, that snapshot captures exactly what the $75 million APG - the eighth to be staged since 2001 - has meant to first-time hosts Singapore.

After all, the able-bodied here are spoilt for choice when it comes to sources of sporting inspiration, with the Republic welcoming the likes of sports stars Kobe Bryant (basketball), Serena Williams (tennis) and Neymar (football) in recent years.

But finding ways to stir the disabled community - which forms about 3 per cent of the resident population, noted a 2012 parliamentary reply - has been a much trickier proposition.

Watching a silky crossover dribble by NBA legend Bryant is not something that Jeremiah Chia, nine, born with spina bifida and who must use a wheelchair, can aspire to.

But seeing Singapore wheelchair basketball captain Choo Poh Choon zip down the court for a lay-up at the Singapore Indoor Stadium this past week sends a stronger and more relatable message. As Jeremiah told my colleague: "I see their resilience, they never give up."

ABILITY TO INSPIRE

That ability to inspire others is what the last seven days of organising 15 para-sports and opening the doors to 1,200 of the region's top para-athletes - from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam - has done.

In a small way, it has begun the process of changing perceptions, not just among people with disabilities, but also among the wider public here.

IT manager Adrian Ee, 39, brought his two sons to the OCBC Aquatic Centre to experience the atmosphere of swimmers racing and discovered something else to admire. He said: "I am inspired by this swimmer who had just one leg and both of his arms were amputated. But he was still swimming the butterfly (stroke), which requires the use of the arms the most. Even without his arms, he was still able to do that. It was amazing."

The enthusiasm from the home crowd has been commendable, with close to 100,000 spectators attending the APG and filling the various venues with banners and applause.

The captain of Singapore's cerebral palsy football team, Khairul Anwar, who led his side to a bronze medal yesterday in front of 3,000 fans at the National Stadium, said: "We all felt like stars playing in front of such a great crowd."

It was also heartening to see a mostly Singaporean crowd - born and bred in a success-oriented culture - appreciate that despite what legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once expressed, winning is not the only thing.

Not only did they roar for every Singaporean medal, but equally for every one of the country's record 154 athletes. It was a reminder to those cynical about sport, with its corruption and drug cheats, that here was the innocence of sports temporarily returned to us.

Late one evening, I sat with a friend to catch the final few races of that night's swimming programme.

Two of the three competitors in the women's 100m backstroke were late withdrawals, leaving Le Thi Tram, a Vietnamese swimmer with a girlish smile and a misshapen left arm, as sole participant. But she was not alone. The arena cheered her every stroke as Tram completed her two laps.

Theresa Goh, with five swimming golds at this meet, has been to every APG and reckoned that this was by far the best-attended Games.

GETTING A WHEELCHAIR PERSPECTIVE

One notable distinction in the Singapore APG has been the comprehensive push by the organisers to engage communities with outreach initiatives.

It is a noble mission supported by a thoughtful theme. Over at the Sports Hub Library, a ping pong table is bookended by plastic chairs to replicate the perspective - and difficulty - required to smack a ball while in a wheelchair.

Outside the National Stadium entrance was the "In Your Shoes" Disability Experience, started by national sports movement ActiveSG and social enterprise Society Staples.

It is not just about putting on a blindfold and trying not to trip over yourself, Denny Tian, one of the volunteers, tells me. It was also an education in empathy in dealing with the visually handicapped for the 3,000 people - aged three to 70 - who signed up. "It's an area in which we as a nation are still very young," says Denny.

But all journeys begin with a single step, and the APG has offered Singaporeans a roadmap.

The decision to encourage athletes and officials to use public transport prior to the Games was widely criticised, but its original intent of putting the athletes into the public space was a praiseworthy one.

That around 900 para-athletes and officials commuted between the Games Village at Marina Bay Sands and the Sports Hub in Kallang using the MRT on Tuesday - the final full day of competition - hopefully points to a future Singapore of greater inclusiveness.

Indeed, the Singapore Disability Sports Council received $2.3 million in government funding this year, an increase from $1.06 million in 2005. And 10 of the 70 Team Singapore athletes under the $40 million Sports Excellence scholarships - which cover training and coaching costs plus monthly stipends of between $1,200 and $8,400 - are para-athletes.

But more can still be done at the grassroot levels to get para-sports into the hearts and minds of the average Singaporean.

Why not introduce for the first time a category for para-athletes for the next year's Singapore National Games? The biennial multi-sports event drew 9,000 participants last year and would be an excellent platform to continue this push towards greater social integration.

That would be the strongest legacy of the APG, which ended with last night's closing ceremony. It was a low-key affair, designed to allow the athletes a moment to catch their breath after a hectic week.

After all, their work is over. For the rest of us, it has only just begun.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Para Games - where winning is not the only thing'. Print Edition | Subscribe