SEA Games: Soh and Co. shut out track and field turmoil back home to perform in Kuala Lumpur

Singapore marathoner Soh Rui Yong after receiving his gold medal, Aug 19, 2017.
Singapore marathoner Soh Rui Yong after receiving his gold medal, Aug 19, 2017.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

KUALA LUMPUR - With discord and infighting within Singapore Athletics' (SA) management in the lead-up to the 29th SEA Games, the country's track and field athletes crossed the Causeway with dark clouds hanging over them.

But concerns that such incidents would hinder their preparation and performance were allayed last night, after the Republic's athletics contingent wrapped up their Games outing as the team performed above expectations in Kuala Lumpur.

Apart from a haul of eight medals - two golds, two silvers and four bronzes - three new national records in the women's 100m, 400m and women's 4x100m relay were also set. The national record in the women's 100m hurdles was also equalled.

Team Singapore chef de mission Milan Kwee credited the showing to the athletes for their ability to stay focused in the face of the turbulence behind the scenes at SA.

He said: "The performances by the athletics team here in KL have been commendable. With eight medals in the bag, national records and personal best times clocked, they have showed that they are able to focus on the task on hand despite the challenges the community faces.

"We certainly hope to see the issues being ironed out and resolved for the long term so that greater improvements and results for our athletes can be achieved."

National athletes The Straits Times spoke to agreed that while preparations were not ideal owing to the politics within SA, they blocked out the troubles mentally.

Shanti Pereira, the 200m champion at the 2015 Games, sobbed uncontrollably after finishing third on Aug 23, behind winner Le Tu Chinh and runner-up Zaidatul Husniah Zulkifli. Then, her coach Margaret Oh revealed that the turmoil at SA had "slightly" affected her protege.

But the 20-year-old also had something to cheer about - she set a new 100m national record of 11.73sec (she had held the previous national mark of 11.80sec) - during the event's heats on Aug 22, and later won bronze in the final.

Asked if the incident had affected her performance, Shanti replied: "I'll be lying if I said it didn't, but I got over it and I found a way to push through."

And she persisted, setting a new 4x100m relay national record of 44.96sec together with Wendy Enn, Dipna Lim-Prasad and Izlyn Zaini on Aug 25.

Pereira said: "We all had a job to do here, (which was) reaching our personal goals and goals as Team Singapore ... we all have our own things going on but when it comes to (the Games), we have to put our game face on and perform for our country and for ourselves."

Izlyn, who also equalled Jannah Wong's three-year-old record in the women's 100m hurdles (14.14 sec), hopes that the display in Kuala Lumpur will impress the public.

The 19-year-old said: "We hope that with our performance, we can change people's mindsets (and show them) that local track and field is not bad."

Soh Rui Yong, who retained his marathon crown on Aug 19, highlighted that this year's haul is a "hell of a performance" by the athletes although it did not match up to the 2015 tally of three golds, three silvers and three bronzes.

"I think to a certain extent, athletes were definitely affected by everything that was going on, but (this performance) definitely shows the tenacity and the strength," added the 26-year-old.

The build-up to the Games had been less than ideal. The hostilities between SA officials came to the fore in June when a leaked WhatsApp conversation had appeared to suggest that SA vice-president (training and selection) Govindasamy Balasekaran had instructed the association's staff to "get evidence" so that local coaches Margaret Oh and (pole vault coach) David Yeo would get into "trouble".

Balasekaran was also at loggerheads with SA president Ho Mun Cheong. The strife within the SA top brass reached boiling point in May when Ho called for an extraordinary general meeting to hold snap polls and elect a new management committee. The election did not happen after the meeting was called off a day before it was slated to take place.

National sports agency Sport Singapore had also withheld funding to SA since last July until it could resolve its issues, causing SA to dip into its reserves.

Major intervention was needed and it came in the shape of a Major Games Preparation Committee, set up jointly by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) and SportSG, was established at the end of June to take charge of athletics' preparations for the SEA Games.

SNOC Athletes' Commission chairman Yip Renkai, a former national water polo player, was appointed team manager, to be assisted by former national high jumper Hoe Aik Teng.

According to Soh, the helping hand from the authorities was a major factor in pushing the team forward to deliver.

He said: "Despite all that we had going on, I think it still shows that we can put together the teamwork when we need to.

"He (Yip) stabilises the ship ... it's definitely important having a team manager who has that calming influence."

Pereira added: "I think (having Yip as manager) helped everyone, he was a good team manager and he made sure everything was going well."

Yip commended the athletes for keeping their concentration on their preparation efforts despite the "distractions" that had emerged.

"As much as we (the MGPC) try to keep them away from all these distractions, it's really the athletes who have known how to focus and keep their preparations on track," he said.

"I do my role in trying to get the team together, trying to motivate them and get each of them to motivate each other, but for them, they have done what they needed to do - they were focused and they were sure of their direction.

"I think all the credit goes to the athletes."

For now, the athletes will return home knowing that they produced creditable results under trying circumstances.

Lim-Prasad, who smashed Chee Swee Lee's 43-year-old record in the 400m final on Aug 24, summed up the athlete's approach: "It (was) like a dark cloud above us, but beyond that cloud there's blue sky, so I think we're just trying to see past that and not think so short term."