Sporting Life

High jumper simultaneously elevated himself and us

This competitor from the Philippines was the Everyman of the Asean Para Games, putting down his crutch before taking just four hops on one leg and somersaulting over the bar.
This competitor from the Philippines was the Everyman of the Asean Para Games, putting down his crutch before taking just four hops on one leg and somersaulting over the bar.PHOTO: CHARLES LOH/ SPORT SINGAPORE

On a new sporting day, an old image endures. It is early Wednesday morning at the National Stadium. Technicians test the start systems and volunteers clamber onto the victory podium to take photos. Soon the wheelchair racers, bent over with arms extended like a buzzing squadron of low-flying grasshoppers, will emerge.

But still it is Tuesday's man whose image lingers. The man with one leg, the one with the crutch, at the high jump pit. Did you see him?

At most Games we routinely pick moments and rate the best athletes, but it's difficult to do that here. No, it's almost unfair to. How do you measure hardship and calculate courage? Is it harder to swim as a double amputee than run when you can't see? We're a sporting planet which wants to quantify everything into numbers, medals and points to separate people but this Games was all stories and few stats.

On a single day, at a single venue, a hundred tales. Yesterday, shot-putters, strapped to a throwing frame, anchored themselves by holding onto a long pole, leaned back and threw. All day we find rhythms and movements that we see nowhere else in sport. A runner with an amputated left arm, and thus unbalanced as he crouched for the start, rested his stump on a small, bottle-shaped object to steady himself before taking off.

Most intriguing are the visually impaired runners for to run into the dark - their eyes are covered - takes nerve and to run straight without seeing takes practice. Singapore's Calvin Kang, who ran the 100m at the Beijing Olympics, confesses he once closed his eyes in training and ran. In three strides he was in the wrong lane.

Here, runner and guide, tied together, turn into one four-legged body and Cheng Zai Xiang, a fan who has brought his son to watch, murmurs: "How do you do that?" Dipna Lim-Prasad, national 400m hurdles champion, offers a peek into the degree of difficulty: At race's end, she explains, these athletes must tire but if their arms don't move in tandem then neither will their legs. Sport, it is idly said, fosters harmony but here we understand it in its truest sense - a male guide runs to fulfil the dream of a woman.

Singapore has respected these athletes by treating them honourably, for in organisation and facilities it never seemed like a second-class Games. In return, athletes honoured the Games with effort.

How do you pick a moment among such moments? You can't. And yet the high jumper, like a painting which embeds itself in the brain for no accountable reason, stays with me.

He stood on one leg, erect, tall, not unbalanced by whatever life has thrown at him.

After two laps yesterday, Singapore's Lim Wei Leong, who had been hit by a stomach virus earlier, started cramping in the 1,500m but would not stop. He slowed, he limped, he finished. Three days ago, wheelchair racer William Tan, 58, fell and hurt his ankle and yet two days ago he sliced four seconds off his 200m time set at the national championships in August.

The fascinating has become familiar, the decent has become commonplace. Yesterday Jack Lai, the Singapore 400m wheelchair racer, said he'd learnt a "different style of pushing from the Thais". He watched, he asked, they told him.

And so how do you pick a moment among such moments? You can't. And yet the high jumper, like a painting which embeds itself in the brain for no accountable reason, stays with me.

On Tuesday afternoon I wasn't working, just wandering around the National Stadium, when I saw him by chance. He was not particularly unique and yet he caught my attention because from a distance his body spoke of calm.

He eyed the bar and very precisely and with dignity, laid his crutch down beside him. He stood on one leg, erect, tall, not unbalanced by whatever life has thrown at him. Then he bounded forward, in a series of four hops like a man on a pogo stick, and somersaulted over the bar. If you're an average Singaporean woman, with your heels off, he just leapt over you.

At this point I should tell you this athlete's name, height, home town, reason for disability, but I can't help you. Till yesterday evening, when a colleague found me a gif of him jumping, I didn't know his name or nation or if he won - and it is appropriate. Because he was Everyman. He wasn't really the moment that stood out at these Games but maybe he was the moment that stood for this Games. A sort of symbol for a wider tribe whom we now see a bit clearer - people felled temporarily who have ascended towards their better selves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'High jumper simultaneously elevated himself and us'. Print Edition | Subscribe