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Sporting Life

Documenting deeds to enshrine our sporting history

My abysmal marks from school might be proof to the contrary, but I love history. Love loping through old books which reveal that a French tennis player rehydrated herself between sets by sipping brandy. Love those old golf clubs which resembled dull sticks till Jack Nicklaus picked them up. Love to hear old Singapore sailors tell tales about cutting holes in plastic bags to make a windbreaker.

History is perspective. Every time modern footballers start whining about $200,000 weekly salaries we should reach into history's cupboard and pull out those clunky things - with protruding nails - which used to be called boots. Don't complain, fellows.

History is humility. It's about knowing your place and where you come from. It's about appreciating that someone cleared part of the road for you. Someone took the first step and won in South-east Asia; someone went further and shone in Asia; all of them giving you hope and telling you: It's possible. To make history.

History is belonging, it is the number that's stamped on the shirts of Test cricket players which tells them they're the 93rd or 67th to play for Australia. Just one thread in a fabric, just one leaf in a tree. History is insight, it is the journey of sport through time and technology and dress code and diets.

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But history has to be preserved. Taped but also written. History like the two-volume set of books on Singapore sailing, Upwind and Winning, which was elegantly written by Peter H.L. Lim - a writer and former president of the Singapore Yachting Association (now Singapore Sailing Federation) - and now can be downloaded free.

Here is a sport recorded and a fraternity documented. Here, from an indoor, air-conditioned land, is a sect of intriguing sea-people. Here is a chronicle of affection and a diary of progress which tells us two local sailors took part in the 2007 America's Cup challenger series.

One of them is Charles Lim, who tells a magazine that his father, Lim Cheng Liang, built a raft out of bamboo, tied it with rattan, made a square rig and was gone. When Lim Sr wasn't quite sure how to guide the craft back, he abandoned it and swam to shore. When he made another raft, his mother, fearful of these adventures, simply burnt it.


This trio of sailors created history in 1956. Jack Snowden (from left), Robert "Bobby" Ho and Keith Johnson were among Singapore's first Olympians, competing at the Melbourne Olympics. The image is from the book Upwind and Winning: The Singular Story of Sailing in Singapore. PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGIC DRAGON MEDIA

This is a story a nation should know, for it reeks of spirit and adventure. This is worth reading even if you're a landlocked heathen who thinks tack is only a type of pin. This is also what Singapore sport needs - chronicles and chroniclers. This nation has sporting characters and it has fine writers and together they need to fill some shelves.

Yesterday I messaged Ang Peng Siong, faster one year in the 50m freestyle than anyone else in the world. No book yet. I called Patricia Chan, who won 39 SEA Games golds and once had to swim through algae on her way to victory. No book yet. Fifty years from now these human, talented, colourful figures will deserve to be more than a tattered memory to be found in dry record books.

The weights Tan Howe Liang lifted and the burdens he bore demand an artful and modern cataloguing; the intensity that Yip Pin Xiu took and married to grace to win three Paralympic golds needs to be recounted in a book. Newspapers are only the first drafts of history and in our ignorance of their wider journeys lies our loss.

Yesterday I messaged Ang Peng Siong, faster one year in the 50m freestyle than anyone else in the world. No book yet. I called Patricia Chan, who won 39 SEA Games golds and once had to swim through algae on her way to victory. No book yet. Fifty years from now these human, talented, colourful figures will deserve to be more than a tattered memory to be found in dry record books.

If you go to the National Archives of Singapore, Archives Online portal, there is a collection of oral history interviews with 73 sports personalities. First, this is valuable, but not enough. Second, books differ from interviews for they view an athlete's life from various angles, in different shades, in many voices. Books also focus not only on individuals but on eras, capturing the atmosphere of holy grounds and the tribalism of unforgettable teams, illuminating the rise of a sport and sometimes its fall.

Of course some history has been recorded and some voyages narrated and there are, among others, yarns on sprinter C. Kunalan, swimmer Joscelin Yeo, footballer Quah Kim Song and the water polo warriors. But we're still a mini-library short of nuanced recollections, for entire teams and times and cultures are passing by undocumented. One day older athletes will pass away and their deeds will only be left in our unfaithful memories.

National federations and Sports Singapore could commission books, journalists should step forward, athletes should lift a veil of shyness. Everyone has a story. Stories like Elaine Chua's, whose yacht had a damaged rudder and a dead autopilot but still she crossed the Atlantic. Alone. It's her story, it's history, it's a helluva story. But we're grateful someone put it in a book because it's also a Singapore story.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2017, with the headline 'Documenting deeds to enshrine our sporting history'. Print Edition | Subscribe