Sporting Life

Only our most worthy should light the SEA Games flame

On any medal table Pat Chan and Joscelin Yeo (above) would be a high-ranking nation by themselves. You going to choose a footballer over them to light the flame?
On any medal table Pat Chan and Joscelin Yeo (above) would be a high-ranking nation by themselves. You going to choose a footballer over them to light the flame?

In September last year a 69-year-old man suffered a brain haemorrhage in a Tokyo hospital. Yoshinori Sakai died quietly, unmourned by the planet, even though 50 years earlier - in October 1964 - the world briefly knew his name.

He was the teenager who lit the cauldron at the Tokyo Olympics, the boy who was born on Aug 6, 1945 - the day Hiroshima was bombed - the young man who symbolised a renewed Japan. "It is a great honour," he told the New York Times. "It is my intention to maintain this honour throughout life, whether in public or in private."

Torch relays at any Games - Olympic, Asian, SEA - can be cheesy (the Olympic torch has been underwater. What for, we're not sure), creepy (the torch relay was started at Adolf Hitler's 1936 Olympics) and yet oddly moving when the cauldron is lit. Maybe because fire represents talent coming to life - and so what if in Seoul in 1988 the Olympic cauldron turned into an impromptu crematorium for peace doves that flew the wrong way.

Symbolism is at the heart of most choices. At the 1968 Olympics the first woman lit the flame; in 1992 a Paralympic archer; in 1988 a teacher, student and dancer; in 1948 a non-Olympian who was described by a historian as an "anonymous Adonis".

Yet every choice is as classified as a Jason Bourne file. The cauldron-lighter, in the days before a Games, is a national mystery, a sort of cheerful state secret that is whispered about. For this SEA Games there is talk of generations lighting the cauldron together, the old and young, the then and now, and that's swell. But there is also rumour that it may involve footballers and that - nothing personal here, fellows - is dismaying.

Footballers can carry a torch but should stay clear of the cauldron. This they shouldn't light up. In a country where football anyway overshadows all other sport it would send a clumsy message; in a Games where football has been outperformed by other Singaporean sports it would be unjust and inappropriate.

The lighter of the flame doesn't need to be wildly famous (ever met a shooter who was?) nor a Pied Piper with a trailing legion of fans (are sailors pursued by autograph hunters?). This isn't about the most attractive choice but the most worthy choice.

Two weeks ago I met the eloquent, elegant Pat Chan. Maybe you've heard of her. Used to swim a bit. Like 39-SEA-Games-golds kind of bit. Chan was hanging out with Joscelin Yeo and she - my pick to light the cauldron - has, er, 40 gold medals. On any medal table these exceptional women would be a high-ranking nation by themselves.

You going to choose a footballer over them to light the flame? Or over the water polo guys who have won 25 consecutive golds. As compared to the footballers who have won exactly none.

If you reduce the lighting of the cauldron to a popularity contest you lose a chance to make a point. Which is to honour a great athlete whose life is intertwined with these Games. An athlete whose legend might have faded in the memory and yet who deserves to be unforgettable.

I asked three young people yesterday about Pat Chan. One was blank, one said swimmer, one said badminton or swimming. None knew her number of medals. All should have. All should know shooter Lee Wung Yew, bowler Grace Young, gymnast Lee Heem Wei, sailor Siew Shaw Her, swimmer David Lim - all with a string of golds.

To honour your past is to remind the young that sport is worth their future. To give old-timers the torch to light a cauldron is to allow history to come to grey-haired life. My God, a nation discovers, these athletes were something!

Sport, like life, is intrinsically unfair and class systems abound. Rowers and archers, fencers and swimmers, runners and jumpers, they'll never be as sexy as football. They win and get a little applause; footballers slump and are still big news. Footballers will always be more cool than anyone; except that at the SEA Games, of the 752 golds Singapore have, the uncool guys have won them all.

And so by letting one of those champions light the cauldron we redress the balance. We honour them. We recognise that every sport matters. We remember that for them this flame has a powerful value. Because, unlike footballers, it's only at these intermittent Games that so many of these wondrous athletes finally find their time in the public sun.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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