A toast to an improbable nation: The first Youth Olympic Games

A young sporting nation comes of age

Preparations for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games which put Singapore firmly under the world sporting spotlight in 2010.
Preparations for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games which put Singapore firmly under the world sporting spotlight in 2010. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
There was much rejoicing when it was announced that Singapore had won the bid for the first Youth Olympic Games.
There was much rejoicing when it was announced that Singapore had won the bid for the first Youth Olympic Games.ST PHOTO: EDWIN KOO
Audrey Yong celebrating her gold in the Women’s Windsurfing RSX during June’s SEA Games.
Audrey Yong celebrating her gold in the Women’s Windsurfing RSX during June’s SEA Games.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

From small fledgling steps to glorious Olympic moments, sports is thriving

I, Singapore Sports, began my journey on a July evening in 1973 with the official opening of the National Stadium, built to promote sports as necessary for a healthy lifestyle among Singaporeans.

The construction of the $50-million, 55,000-seat state-of-the-art arena forever changed the landscape of Kallang, and the country. And I became part of this upstart Republic.

I was feted at that year's Southeast Asian Peninsular Games - precursor to the SEA Games - and at later Games. But, ultimately, when pitted against academic pursuits, pragmatism prevailed and I always came second-best.

Don't get me wrong - there have been milestones. I enjoyed global fame in 1982 when a young Ang Peng Siong dived into a pool at the US Swimming Championships and emerged the fastest man in the world. In 2008, I rejoiced at the sight of an Olympic medal, thanks to the women's table tennis team, which ended an almost half-century wait after the silver from weightlifter Tan Howe Liang at the 1960 Rome Games.

But sporting glory proved fleeting, and I was soon forgotten.

All that changed at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG). They were the first of their kind, a fresh idea championed by former International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge to bring together thousands of the planet's finest teen athletes.

  • SPORTS MILESTONES

  • 1973: The $50-million National Stadium opens and Singapore hosts the 7th South-east Asian Peninsular Games.

    1982: Ang Peng Siong is world's fastest swimmer after he clocks 22.69sec in the 50m freestyle at the US Open Swimming Championships. He wins gold in the 100m freestyle at the Asian Games.

    1994: Led by Fandi Ahmad, Singapore win the Malaysia League and Cup. A year later, the Football Association of Singapore opts to leave the competition, returning in 2012.

    1996: The S-League, Singapore's first professional football league, kicks off.

    2004: The Singapore Sports School welcomes its first batch of students.

    2005: Swimmer Joscelin Yeo wins her 40th gold at her last SEA Games outing in Manila, retires as most bemedalled athlete in Games history.

    2008: The women's table tennis team of Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu and Feng Tianwei win a team silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. Singapore stages its first Formula One race on the Marina Bay street circuit, F1's first night race.

    2010: Singapore's women's table tennis team crowned world champions after upsetting China in Moscow. Singapore hosts inaugural Youth Olympic Games.

    2014: Sailors Bernie Chin and Samantha Yom, both 15, clinch Youth Olympic gold medals in the Byte CII in Nanjing, China.

    2015: The SEA Games return to Singapore after 22 years and local athletes win a record-breaking 84 golds.

It was a great chance to showcase Singapore on a global level. Despite the country's lack of a track record in hosting such world-class multi- sport events, Singapore threw its hat in the ring - and was selected by the IOC to host the inaugural YOG. Helping sway the decision were Singapore's reputation for efficiency, the enthusiasm shown by the entire populace and promise of a comprehensive culture and education programme for participants.

If the Formula One night race launched here in 2008 had given me some cachet in the international dialogue on sports, I was now most certainly part of the discussion, and at Olympic level no less.

The months and weeks leading up to that fortnight in August hold some of my fondest memories.

Awareness turned into expectation and excitement, and the YOG became my chance to remind everyone, here and abroad, who I was.

Newspapers and radio stations recorded my deeds and extended my narrative to a world audience. News crews from the United States and Europe aimed their cameras at me, interested in my history, my present and my future.

Who were these talented kids of yours, they asked, winning in swimming, table tennis, taekwondo, archery, sailing and football on a stage that captivated the world?

I was thrilled to welcome a new generation of athletes like windsurfer Audrey Yong, who built on her YOG bronze and won a historic gold at the SEA Games in June this year, as companions on my march towards sporting excellence.

After decades playing second fiddle to books and business, I was suddenly in the spotlight.

I had my critics, of course. Why spend $387 million to organise this YOG, they had challenged.

I was able to point to the coach and child in tears together at the finish line, at the parent beaming in pride on the sidelines, at the thousands of schoolkids soaking up inspiration in packed stadiums. Some lessons are priceless, I replied.

At the end of those memorable two weeks, praise was lavished upon the organisers.

But more significantly, the word "legacy" was repeatedly mentioned. I like that word. It gives me hope for brighter days ahead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'A young sporting nation comes of age'. Print Edition | Subscribe