Athlete-NSA link to iron out problems

Feng Tianwei celebrates a point during her Rio 2016 Olympics Women's Team quarterfinals match against Seo Hyo-Won of South Korea.
Feng Tianwei celebrates a point during her Rio 2016 Olympics Women's Team quarterfinals match against Seo Hyo-Won of South Korea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Feng saga shows both parties to benefit from clear dialogue channel to minimise acrimony

An unceremonious parting, an official calling her "a disgrace to the nation" on Facebook and allegations of player misconduct - the ongoing Feng Tianwei saga is a stain on what has otherwise been a bright year in Singapore sport.

At the heart of it all is the calamitous breakdown of relations between Feng and the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), which led to the triple Olympic medallist being dropped from the national squad.

Yip Renkai, chairman of the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) Athletes' Commission, believes this incident highlights the importance of having a proper communication channel between athletes and their national sports associations (NSAs).

"Ideally, we would like to have an athletes' commission in all NSAs, co-opted into the respective management committees so they have voting powers over issues concerning athletes," said Yip, a former national water polo player.

"This is important because athletes then have a voice in decisions that affect them. The commission also acts as a channel to seek redress.

THE CASE FOR ATHLETES' COMMISSIONS

This is important because athletes then have a voice in decisions that affect them, and the commission also acts as a channel to seek redress.

YIP RENKAI, chairman of the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) Athletes' Commission.

"In an ideal world, this shouldn't have happened (had there been) proper communication between athlete and association."

An athletes' commission should comprise both retired and active athletes to ensure a good mix of views, said Yip.

Some NSAs already have an athletes' commission, including the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) and Singapore Cycling Federation. Singapore Athletics is also expected to establish one.

HELPING HAND

Regardless of whether she is right or wrong, this is the time that Tianwei needs help the most, but where it is coming from?

R. SASIKUMAR, managing director of sports marketing agency Red Card Global.

Former national swimmer Russell Ong, chairman of the SSA's Athletes' Commission, believes his team has helped streamline differences over selection policies since coming together in 2014.

For instance, there was confusion over the 2013 Singapore National Swimming Championships, and whether it was the final qualifying meet for the year's SEA Games.

Ong said: "We meet about once a month, and when there are issues, we'd voice our concerns after getting feedback from the athletes. The SSA has been receptive.

"In the past, there was some ambiguity over selection policies, but I'd say it is much clearer now."

Former national footballer R. Sasikumar tried but failed to get a footballers' union started here.

The 41-year-old, who is now managing director of sports marketing agency Red Card Global, had envisioned that in the long run, such a body could aspire to become a union like England's Professional Footballers' Association (PFA). He had hoped that it would not only protect the rights of its members, for example in disciplinary cases and in seeking legal redress, but also offer career transition programmes for retiring athletes.

It could even be expanded to cover all athletes in Singapore.

He said: "As sport here becomes more professional and athletes' needs become more demanding, they need a support group and representation (legal or otherwise)."

It remains unclear if the Feng case will take a legal turn. But the outcome of any court dispute would depend on the terms of any contracts she had concluded with the STTA prior to her axing, said Abigail Cheng, Team Singapore equestrian and litigation lawyer from RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP.

Rather than being embroiled in a courtroom tussle, Sasikumar believes an empowered and neutral commission could help, particularly in the high-strung nature of elite sport, where emotions and egos come into play.

He said: "A players' body would be more neutral, and look for ways to mediate, as opposed to being confrontational.

"Regardless of whether she is right or wrong, this is the time that Tianwei needs help the most, but where it is coming from?"

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, the STTA said its athletes have always been told to take issues to the chairman of its high performance committee, Soon Min Sin.

A spokesman said the STTA will seek guidance from the International Table Tennis Federation and see how such an athletes' commission can be established within the STTA.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Athlete-NSA link to iron out problems'. Print Edition | Subscribe