Athletics: Dismay after depth of divide is revealed

A screengrab of the leaked WhatsApp conversation involving key officials and Singapore Athletics' Sports Development and Performance team.
A screengrab of the leaked WhatsApp conversation involving key officials and Singapore Athletics' Sports Development and Performance team.

Shock and disappointment pervaded the local sporting fraternity, a day after leaked photos of a WhatsApp conversation demonstrated the severity of the internal rift within Singapore Athletics (SA).

The images showed SA vice-president (training and selection) Govindasamy Balasekaran apparently instructing SA staff to collect evidence, so as to force SA president Ho Mun Cheong to take disciplinary action against coaches Margaret Oh (sprint) and David Yeo (pole vault).

That the revelations come two months before the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games also drew the ire of the community.

Former national 400m runner Kenneth Khoo said the latest saga was a new low, even for a historically fractious sport.

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Khoo, who was athletics team captain at the 2015 Singapore SEA Games, said: "We've weathered some really nasty episodes but this has to be one of the most disturbing incidents I've had the misfortune to witness.

"It seems like officials are plotting against coaches and it certainly doesn't make the vice-president look good. How did it come to this? Have they sat down and spoken with each other?"

A current athlete, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said: " It's just sad. As athletes, all we want to do is train hard and compete but it seems like the focus is not so much on that anymore. It's sad that it has reached a point where we're not even surprised by the drama anymore."

A NEW LOW

We've weathered some really nasty episodes but this has to be one of the most disturbing incidents I've had the misfortune to witness. It seems like officials are plotting against coaches...How did it come to this?''

KENNETH KHOO, Team Singapore's athletics captain at the 2015 SEA Games.

In a statement, Lim Teck Yin, chief executive officer of local sport governing body Sport Singapore, called on the warring factions to unite for the sake of the athletes.

He said: "The interests of the country and athlete should be placed above all else. It is therefore disappointing that continuing distrust and discord in the team leading Singapore Athletics is hurting the sport.

"We urge all parties to come to the table, put aside their personal differences and work professionally towards the common objective of preparing our athletes to be in the best position to perform at the upcoming SEA Games."

The falling-out of the SA's top brass has alarmed some quarters, considering it was only a year ago that Ho's team, which included Balasekaran, swept 12 of the 14 positions on offer at the SA election.

Former SA president Tang Weng Fei said: "It's shocking how things got so bad in less than a year."

On how some members of the leadership seem to be getting the SA staff involved, Tang, an oil trader, said: "What they are doing, letting the secretariat know the divide is still there and refusing to work together, is uncalled for.

"At the same time, as president, how can you let these things happen? If someone is out of line, you have to lay down the law."

Tang pointed to how he had, as president, suspended then vice-presidents Loh Chan Pew and Steven Lee in 2014 for alleged breaches of discipline.

Asked if he would consider returning to the fray, Tang said: "My work is the priority now but if I have the time, I've got to come in and clean up all this."

Singapore National Olympic Council vice-president Low Teo Ping also weighed in on the issue. Looking ahead, he believes tweaking the SA constitution could help the management committee work together.

Low, who led a three-member appeals panel that looked into Loh and Lee's suspension in 2014, said: "They appoint individuals into VP (vice-president) positions that are very specific with regard to their role, such as training and selection, competitions organising, etc. I think that should not be the case.

"The result of that is it creates silos. When you create silos, it's not in the best interests of the sport. It becomes very turf-oriented and it doesn't encourage people to work together as a team. You are electing people with specialist skills (but) what we're looking at are leadership skills.

"To me, this is where the constitution should be tweaked and modernised."

•Additional reporting by May Chen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline 'Dismay after revelations of divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe