South-east Asia’s best Games

Region on upswing and must focus on core sports

Ng Ser Miang, vice-president of Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).
Ng Ser Miang, vice-president of Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).PHOTO: ST FILE

South-east Asia has gone from zero golds in 2012 to a best-ever haul of five golds and a total of 18 medals at the Rio Games. It is a promising performance that bodes well for the future, but the region's top sports officials say it is also a sign that the focus going forward, especially at the SEA Games, must be on Olympic sports

When South-east Asia came away from the 2012 Olympics without a single gold, the region's first gold-less Games since 1988, International Olympic Committee member Ng Ser Miang found himself fielding questions from journalists.

Were South-east Asian athletes going to be mere participants at the Olympics now, the Singaporean was asked. What does it say when the region, with a population of over 600 million, is incapable of producing even one Olympic champion?

But what a difference four years makes.

Not only has South-east Asia ensured the London Games flop was a one-off, the statement made in Rio over the last two weeks could not have been stronger.

South-east Asia will finish with five golds, 10 silvers and three bronzes - won by six nations - making it the region's best Olympic haul in history.

It betters the four-gold performance of the 2004 Games. In terms of total medals won, the 18 captured this time also surpasses the joint-highest of 12 at the Athens and Beijing editions.

The gold-medal charge, unsurprisingly, is led by regional powerhouse Thailand through its usual niche in weightlifting, while Indonesia contributed again in badminton.

What stood out in Rio was two South-east Asian nations finding themselves on the top of the Olympic podium for the first time.

What is also notable is that beyond the region's traditional strong suits of badminton and weightlifting, there were breakthroughs in sports South-east Asia is not typically fancied in.

In shooting, Vietnam's Hoang Xuan Vinh took gold in the 10m air pistol, while the feat of Singapore's own swim star Joseph Schooling is now a story known the world over.

GET THE BASICS RIGHT

Let's not try and bring in sports that don't have any chance of getting anywhere on the world stage.

TUNKU IMRAN, president of both the Olympic Council of Malaysia and SEA Games Federation Council, on not letting the regional Games get too bloated.

It will be a tough act for the region to follow come Tokyo 2020, but Ng believes the momentum has been set.

He said: "As countries develop in economy and as countries recognise the value of sport and what winning can do for national pride and social cohesion, more emphasis will be put on sport.

"These are a Games where we were winning medals in different sports. I believe South-east Asia will continue to do well at future Games."

He added that Schooling's achievement, for one thing, will be a reminder of Nelson Mandela's famous words: It always seems impossible until it's done.

It could also go a long way in spurring the region's sporting minnows - Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Timor Leste - who have yet to win their first Games medal.

Schooling, upon his historic 100m butterfly win, said: "I hope this shows people from small countries can do extraordinary things."

MOMENTUM FOR 2020

To carry this momentum into 2020, in the hope that bigger and better things are in store in Tokyo, is not impossible. Three of the five gold medallists are just 21 and likely to have more Olympics in their careers. But the region's top sports officials feel a concerted and targeted effort is needed.

Of South-east Asia's achievers in Rio, the path to the podium for several athletes was paved outside of their home countries.

Singapore's own Schooling left the Republic for the United States seven years ago to pursue a better training environment.

Malaysia's Pandelela Rinong, who won a silver in the 10m synchronised platform with Cheong Jun Hoong, spends much of the year training in China. Likewise for cyclist and keirin bronze medallist Azizulhasni Awang, who is based in Melbourne.

Even for others who did not win a medal, preparation was done elsewhere. Cambodia's female marathoner Nary Ly, for instance, trains in Spain and spent months in Kenya running with some of the world's best before heading to Rio.

It should be asked: Rather than send athletes overseas, is there a possibility that, over time, the region can build up sufficient expertise to have its own regional centres of excellence?

And from there, create an ecosystem where resources are shared within the region, according to each country's identified forte?

Malaysia, after engaging badminton legend Morten Frost of Denmark as its technical director, made an unprecedented three finals in Rio. Its diving programme is also considered world class.

Thailand took two golds in weightlifting, including a one-two finish in the women's 58kg class. Singapore has always been the regional powerhouse in swimming.

Having international teams spar with each other in training is a practice that is already widely used by local elite athletes in a bid to improve. Badminton players, for instance, have gone on training camps with Japanese players while the table tennis team also host foreign sides regularly.

Such a concerted effort by the region - while an endeavour that would take many years to come to fruition - could ensure that South-east Asia's production of Olympic champions does not stop at the few outstanding athletes that come only once in a while, but becomes a steady pipeline.

Said Ng: "Moving forward, I believe there is a scope and reason, and even a desire, for countries to come together and leverage on each other's strengths."

SEA CHANGE

The region in a way already possesses what may be the perfect platform to improve together: the SEA Games.

The biennial event gives South-east Asian athletes an avenue to compete internationally for more exposure, although some feel what many term the "kampung Games" should start changing tack.

Built on the foundation of encouraging solidarity in the region, the Games have at times been the subject of criticism when sports are taken out or added to the host country's advantage.

Said Tunku Imran, president of both the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) and SEA Games Federation Council: "Let's really concentrate on the sports that matter - and that is the Olympic sports and Asian Games sports.

"Let's not try and bring in sports that don't have any chance of getting anywhere on the world stage.

"The SEA Games are a great opportunity for us to get young athletes improving themselves against other South-east Asian countries. Let's use it as a platform to improve ourselves at the Olympics, the Asian Games and for some of us, at the Commonwealth Games."

And rather than try to be a jack of all trades, some feel countries would do well to focus on being masters of one - or some - especially in disciplines it already has proven results in.

Said Low Beng Choo, OCM's secretary-general: "These Games are good proof that we can be competitive, it's just that we've not focused on the right sports and the right events.

"If you want to do well at the Olympics, people need to start thinking about focusing on sports that we're good at, instead of trying to do all the sports. South-east Asia cannot be good at all 28 Olympic sports, or even half of it.

"If you hit the right formula, you can succeed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'Region on upswing and must focus on core sports'. Print Edition | Subscribe