Time for a new generation to inspire

Modest regional meet has spawned continental and Olympic champions

ST 20150530 SPT6A 1359345m

LIKE any 11-year-old, Gary Tan loved his superheroes. For him, it was He-Man and the Transformers. That was until he discovered his own breed of supermen.

In the 1989 SEA Games gold medal-winning 4x100 metres medley relay team of David Lim, Ang Peng Siong, Tan V-Meng and Ng Yue Meng, he found his own fantastic four. He vowed that he too would win SEA Games swimming gold. In 2001, the future Olympian kept his promise, winning the first of six Games golds.

Nearly two decades earlier, a 10-year-old's life would change forever after he spent his school holidays following his dad from venue to venue during the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular Games in Singapore.

The eight-day meet, the first multi-sport event that the Republic had hosted, would leave such a lasting impression on a young Lim Teck Yin that the future water polo player would go on to become a regional champion and secure a bronze at the Asian Games.

The SEA Games may not be as prestigious as the Olympics, or even as large as the Asian Games. Yet, ask Tan or Lim and they will tell you that this seemingly modest biennial gathering of South-east Asia's finest sportsmen has the ability to inspire, to influence like few can.

It is not so much seeing the world's best in action, as seeing one of us, of the same height, the same build, the same passport, the same postal code, graduate from a Toa Payoh swimming pool, a field in Farrer Park.

And it is not just those with "SIN" next to their name who grow at these Games.

Thai boxer Somluck Kamsing was a SEA Games champion before he won Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Likewise, Indonesian badminton great Susi Susanti, who became Asean's first Olympic gold medallist, tasted SEA Games defeat before the experience moulded her into a 1992 Olympic champion.

In Singapore, the feats of swimmers Patricia Chan, Joscelin Yeo, track stars Chee Swee Lee, Glory Barnabas, et al, helped elevate sport from an afterthought in 1973, at a time when, despite the opening of a new National Stadium, the emphasis was on building a healthy populace, not grooming sportsmen.

Their efforts helped pave the way for a new, more privileged generation today. One where an unprecedented $40 million war chest of state funds has been made available to Singapore's best to support their sporting dreams. A generation who get to call a $1.33 billion Sports Hub their new playground. But one, like other generations, which must leave their own legacy.

To help do that is the new mission of Lim, now 52, and Tan, now 33. The former water polo player's contribution comes through his role as executive committee chairman of the Singapore South-east Asian Games Organising Committee (Singsoc).

Tan, as the assistant coach of Singapore's swim team, prides himself on grooming the next generation of champions in the pool.

For them, and thousands of others involved with the region's premier sporting extravaganza, the challenge is to sell the Games to a new generation of Singaporeans, one not brought up on the regular diet of seeing local stars win at home.

In an era of live television and online streaming, where instant access to the world's best is literally a click away, the challenge is to continue to inspire, as those before them have.

It is up to the current stars, like Singapore's multiple Olympic medallist, paddler Feng Tianwei, rising star swimmer and Asian champion Joseph Schooling and Malaysia's Olympic bronze medallist, diver Pandelela Rinong, to set an example and enable others to dream of being faster, higher, stronger.

Such inspiration is what helped a legion of athletes from a region which was never quite part of the global sporting conversation become relevant on the big stage.

And over the next 21/2 weeks, it is their deeds which will hopefully win over a new generation of fans who will come to realise that sport is its most inspirational when witnessed live and at home.

marclim@sph.com.sg