SPORTING LIFE

Athletes lift when galvanised by fans' sound track

MICHELLE Sng, as lean and light and supple as a fencing foil, has gone deaf. The high jumper hears nothing, she sees nothing in the stadium except the strip of fibreglass before her. "I tune out. It's just me and the bar." She is 172cm, the bar is set at 181cm. No big deal. As her coach told her long ago: "Before you call yourself a high jumper, you have got to jump over your own height."

It is a feat of significant concentration to not hear anything because the stadium is buzzing and quivering. Two old men behind me, like retired radio commentators, offer a non-stop narration. "Go", they cry; "get up" they yell at jumpers, who seem to listen and fly. "You are only there (over the bar) for a few milliseconds," the great high jumper Stefan Holm told the New York Times, "but on a perfect day, it feels like you could hang there forever."

It's Friday night and track athletes are having a field day. The rain has ceased, the crowd is - by track standards - a flood. In some parts, there's so much red, on seats and on some shirts, that it's like walking through a field of poppies. The empty stadium is a shell, but this one, one-fourth full, has a personality. Stone and glass have come to life and so have athletes.

Love affairs only start when both parties show up; inspiration only occurs when a child sees an idol. And so it has been at the National Stadium where audience and athlete have been caught in a rare and loud embrace.

Dipna Lim-Prasad shakes her slim, smiling head because she is thinking of the sound of this stadium. She's at the mixed zone and her team-mate is still clutching a photograph of the photo finish, the final proof that the Malaysians beat them to bronze in the 4x100m relay: Their time was the same but maybe those ladies had a longer curl of hair.

"We can hear it (the noise) when we're running," said Lim-Prasad. "When we walk in, near the start of the 100m, you can hear them say your name. At the (London) Olympics there were more people in the stadium. But they were not cheering for me."

Here, they were.

In the cruel caste system of Singapore sport, football lives in the penthouse, track in the basement. But at these Games, in a brief advertisement of what a buoyant sporting culture might look like in the future, there has been celebration of runner and jubilation over jumper. And they can sense it.

Ng Chin Hui, his 400m final done, points to his arms and says the "unbelievable" crowd made "my hair stand". This tribe is used to only yelling coaches and supportive family when they compete, but here strangers are calling their name, sometimes more than 10,000 of them. It's been, well, "nerve-racking" to start with, Eliza Ng will tell you.

Washed in sweat, smile carved on her face, PB against her name after her 3,000m steeplechase, she said: "We hardly see a crowd, so this is amazing." She got used to the crowd, then used the crowd, and it's what fellow athletes tell Muhammad Moheden, who ran the 3,000m steeplechase. "They say it helped them."

He grins, they're all grinning, because the athlete is an actor in search of an audience, someone to show off to, someone to demonstrate skill to, someone to provoke their adrenaline.

Hannah Lee, who has just finished hurling her discus to bronze, touches on a pride that the crowd extracts from athletes. "I feel so many people behind me and every throw is not just for myself." To represent their nation they all know, to be appreciated for it they can now feel.

The crowd is Singaporean but it is not only for Singaporeans. They cheer for winners from foreign lands they don't know and for last-place finishers they have never met. They are the antidote to the idiots who booed the Indonesian woman volleyballer and the misguided who heckled the local football team. Here was a spring of enthusiasm - yes, yes, admission was free - that we have to turn into a lasting river.

It was time for Sng to jump over her head. The crowd stilled. She took nine steps on an almost circular path, lifted off one foot, generated hundreds of pounds of force, and took on a flight of elegant invention. The bar didn't shiver, she was over, the bronze was hers. But there was none for the women's 4x100m team.

"That's sport," shrugged Lim-Prasad later. "That's the heartbreak of sport." Then they were gone, but one moment lingered. Of the Singapore foursome, having digested the result, pushing through the volunteers, walking up to the victorious Malaysians and congratulating them. It only confirmed why the crowds had come. For these are athletes worth cheering for.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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