Sporting Life

In less-celebrated sports are found unusual heroes

People ask if I have a favourite athlete. No. Not a favourite sport either. Not a favourite arena, uniform, mascot. I'm being honest which is why I can admit to being biased. Without a doubt. Towards smaller sports and athletes who are afterthoughts. The ones who sit on the periphery of public interest. The sports whose rules people don't always know, whose beauty is overlooked because we don't often watch, whose complexity we disregard.

I thought about this while at the Singapore Open badminton on Sunday when the players explored space like exact athletic architects. How they lunge, dive, fall, rise, play, in a sport where the shuttle seems to move faster than that Nasa vehicle with the same name is astounding. And yet the stadium could have done with more people. This was great art shunned.

Our journeys through sport tend to take us down familiar avenues, through F1 and basketball and football and tennis, but it's in the athletic bylanes of sport, in the small alleys, where you find the canoeists, the shooters, the divers. Uncelebrated, under-rated, unusual, unique.

But I like these lesser-known citizens of sport because they never come near a spotlight and yet never shrink from struggle. Hey, I'm a romantic, so sue me. I like them because they teach me and remind me that a love of sport has to involve knowledge.

Like Stephenie Chen, multiple SEA Games gold medallist, telling me her kayak has a rudder. Didn't know that. Didn't know that unlike land-based sprinters she has to deal with potential rubbish in the water. Didn't realise that during a 500m race she takes 100-110 strokes per minute while keeping herself balanced on an unsteady, fast-gliding boat that's almost as slim as a model's waistline.

I like these athletes because they're not coated in hype, or pals with hoopla, but offer you answers which make you reconsider how you see their art.

Our journeys through sport tend to take us down familiar avenues, through F1 and basketball and football and tennis, but it's in the athletic bylanes of sport, in the small alleys, where you find the canoeists, the shooters, the divers. Uncelebrated, under-rated, unusual, unique.

Yesterday I asked Michelle Sng, Singapore record holder in the high jump, to identify one of the hardest parts of her discipline and she messaged me this:

"Probably attempting a height you've never cleared before."

Her point was that for throwers, or horizontal jumpers, who might have a distance in mind, there is no tangible barrier to cross. But the high jumper can see the bar, it is there, higher than she has ever been, representing her limitation, standing as a real obstacle, and it makes for an entirely different "mental challenge".

I like these athletes because they're patient, which means they will answer my endless and silly questions politely. I like them because they resemble missionaries who are happy to spread the word about their sect and who don't recoil even when people can't tell the difference between rhythmic and artistic gymnastics. They're just happy if you came to watch, and stayed a while, and found pleasures you wouldn't in any other stadium.

I like them because they're ready to explain their sport and reveal its intricacies in whatever detail you desire. Lim Heem Wei, former Olympic gymnast, spent part of yesterday painstakingly explaining about beam routines and twists and somersaults and the gymnasts' search for a pliable perfectness. When she finished I wanted to leap onto YouTube and watch her tribe.

I like Lim because, like the others, you can feel the muscularity of her passion. Even in a text. I like her firmness when she says that "people see us as pretty little things prancing around, but they don't know how much work goes into looking effortless". Indeed, only when you watch carefully do you abruptly realise that gymnasts are one, errant under-rotation away from landing on their heads.

I like these athletes because some are practitioners of sports that TV channels won't ever touch and yet they won't grumble but instead find a poetry in what seems only plain to us. As Olympic shooter Jasmine Ser, who knows her sport isn't quite James Bond in action with his Walther PPK, says of her still art: "It can be therapeutic." Then she adds: "When you watch shooting, you can discover the inner strength of people, how they keep their composure, how they can be resilient."

I like these athletes because they, more than the feted and the famous, make me appreciate that love of the game must mean all games. Only if you care to go and watch them do you discover that every discipline has an enchantment, a challenge, a virtue, a difficulty.

Tomorrow morning I am going to watch Chen at work in her kayak and perhaps one day so will you. I am not trying to convert you, or guilt-trip you, because sport is always about choice but this much is clear: The more sports we see, the better we know, the greater we understand, the clearer we appreciate.

One last thing. Sng, whose legs in fact might be pogo sticks, is the one I am biased towards. Only because she has jumped 1.84m and by chance I happen to be 1.83m. So perhaps one day she will simply leap over me.

That, I'd really like.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'In less-celebrated sports are found unusual heroes'. Print Edition | Subscribe