Commentary

Athletes go major distance to excel in their minor sport

How far will you go to be great in sport can be a literal question. Not a matter of philosophy but of mileage. At the Rio Olympics it was reported that a Mongolian swimmer travelled 450km to a river where his training companions were "big fishes". Local athletes have embarked on their own voyages in search of their best selves: Sailor Colin Cheng lives in Sydney and speed skater Lucas Ng is parking himself in Goyang, South Korea. Passion, they remind us, involves pilgrimage.

Singapore's cricket teams understand this well for they go to practice every week with their passports. Passion for them means driving to another country to train and play. They don't have an adequate field here, so they must travel to Johor in Malaysia. They are going the extra mile. Or in fact 43.

Welcome, cricketers, to struggle. You are not alone. Doesn't matter which nation you live in, if your sport lacks sufficient stature, if it doesn't have stars to sell it, then you will be friends with comparative neglect. You're probably the cousins of hockey players in Brazil and weightlifters in the Philippines, one of whom, Hidilyn Diaz, won silver in Rio despite starting out by pouring "cement into paint cans on either end of a wood (piece) to make the weights".

Athletes everywhere play different sports but compete for the same flag and yet are treated unevenly. It seems unfair, but then so is sport and life. Some of it is just practicality: In a small nation there are many sporting passions but only so much space. Always someone is left out.

Some sports are better funded, some have more arenas: Some of it is because of success, some is just the product of history. The Lions are ranked No. 162 yet football is deeply carved into the nation's past. That game is a major love, cricket is only a minor affection.

Eventually all sport must matter to a country because all dreams nurture a society and all enthusiasms build interest. It's not, after all, a monolithic sporting culture that nations must aspire to build but a mad, lovely, crowded mosaic.

No athlete elects for adversity, but sometimes it's just a substantial part of the package. An Australian Olympic judoka I know trains in the day and works nights at a bar. Probably serving drinks now and then to his much richer cricketing counterparts in his nation. But he chose a sport not because it was popular or lucrative but because he was taken by its particular craft and challenge.

And so some Singaporeans, despite inconveniences, become cricketers or rowers - which involve long bus rides to Pandan Reservoir - because those sports call them. This is about love, they remind us, not logic.

This labour of athletes from less-celebrated sports is as illuminating as it is inspiring. There is, for instance, a single Olympic-sized skating rink in Singapore. Since it is open to the public, skaters must arrive either very early (5-9am) or late (after 10pm) to find practice time. If the rink is under maintenance, they must sit at home. Yet still they skate.

This ability to shrug at struggle is worth respect. This perseverance of the skater, and cricketer, and rhythmic gymnast, and synchronised swimmer, who rarely earn newspaper inches, aren't easily recognised, don't earn major prize money and are always in search of better facilities, is to be admired.

And so perhaps the least we can do is not to snidely say "who gives a damn about cricket" or "who the hell watches floorball", because preference for one sport shouldn't morph into disdain for another. In everything, after all, there is craft. You can snigger at synchronised swimming but try producing skill when upside down in liquid. You may think diving isn't a rugged pursuit but that's because you haven't felt the impact of water from 33 feet (10m).

Eventually all sport must matter to a country because all dreams nurture a society and all enthusiasms build interest. It's not, after all, a monolithic sporting culture that nations must aspire to build but a mad, lovely, crowded mosaic.

The cricketers - whose game looks slow but unfolds like a detective novel - will keep travelling and playing and there is something to cherish in their zeal. It is hard to improve if you do not have a field and yet if you somehow improve perhaps you will find yourself a field.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Going the distance - to excel in their (minor) sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe