1993: Not even Yeo's feats erased the anguish of Lions' loss

Joscelin Yeo being congratulated by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong after winning the 100m freestyle, the first of her nine gold medals in the 1993 SEA Games. Singapore won 50 gold medals at the Games.
Joscelin Yeo being congratulated by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong after winning the 100m freestyle, the first of her nine gold medals in the 1993 SEA Games. Singapore won 50 gold medals at the Games.THE NEW PAPER FILE PHOTO
The first of two own goals by Lim Tong Hai (left) came with Singapore leading 2-0 against Myanmar in the semi-final of the 1993 SEA Games. Myanmar then took the lead in extra time and although Steven Tan scored the equaliser, the hosts were beaten in
The first of two own goals by Lim Tong Hai (left) came with Singapore leading 2-0 against Myanmar in the semi-final of the 1993 SEA Games. Myanmar then took the lead in extra time and although Steven Tan scored the equaliser, the hosts were beaten in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.ST FILE PHOTO

June 17, 1993 is a night I will never forget. It was when I saw grown men cry, a night when I discovered just how powerful and wonderful sport can be.

The SEA Games football semi-final match between Singapore and Myanmar was the event of the 1993 Singapore SEA Games.

Young swimmer Joscelin Yeo may have been making waves at the Toa Payoh swimming pool, but Kallang was definitely the place to be.

Standing on the steps of the stadium's East Entrance pre-match was as surreal an experience as any. It was as if the National Stadium was a giant magnet, sucking in fans on foot, in cars, on motorbikes, in every direction, from as far as the eye could see.

The mood was one of optimism. Could this finally be the team to win SEA Games gold?

After all, this was a side boasting the predatory powers of Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy and the best footballers of a generation.

For a 17-year-old brought up on the Malaysia Cup football fever, the atmosphere was one to savour. For a budding reporter interning for The Straits Times, it was a dream come true.

The match started well enough for Singapore, who raced to a 2-0 lead after 23 minutes. But then disaster struck.

Two own goals by Lim Tong Hai stunned a packed Kallang into silence. Yet the drama was far from over.

In extra time, Win Aung gave Myanmar the lead, only to see Steven Tan equalise for the hosts to force a penalty shoot-out.

But there was no joy in the ensuing spot kicks as the Lions lost 4-5.

Joy, jubilation, sorrow, despair, relief and finally just emptiness. To see an entire stadium go through such a range of emotions in just three hours made me realise that capturing the drama of sport was what I wanted to do for a career.

Public apologies made the news in the following days. And although the manner of defeat did take away some shine of an otherwise glittering Singapore performance on home soil, there was still much to celebrate.

Swimmer Yeo, only 14, was undoubtedly the star of the Games, winning nine gold medals to stake her claim as the queen of South-east Asian swimming.

Her haul helped the hosts bag a record 50 gold medals to finish fourth among eight countries.

But swimming was not the only sport which delivered.

Wushu was a surprise top performer as the exponents, led by Picasso Tan, who would later pursue a career in acting following his Games success, harvested seven golds.

Bodybuilding was also the toast of the town as it muscled its way to six golds, with Azman Abdullah, who won the 1993 World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships middleweight crown, among the winners.

The Singapore Games would also announce the arrival of another future world champion.

Malaysian bowler Shalin Zulkifli was only 15 when she made her SEA Games debut in Singapore. Yet the London-born kegler, who would win the World Tenpin Masters title in 2001, won two golds, including the women's masters, dethroning home favourite Grace Young along the way.

It would be another 22 years before Singapore would host another SEA Games. But the feats of Yeo and the mistakes of Lim are still a much talked-about chapter in SEA Games history.

marclim@sph.com.sg

Marc Lim was a Straits Times intern during the 1993 SEA Games. He became the paper's sports editor in 2012

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