COMMENTARY

Win or lose, every athlete has captured S'porean hearts

SOME said it was crazy. Many said it could not be done. Most just said it was plain foolish - there was just no way Singapore could hit the 80-gold mark at the SEA Games, even if it was on home soil.

We were doing it for the hype, said others about The Straits Times' prediction that the Republic could improve on its previous record haul, at the 1993 Games, by 30 golds.

But we were quietly confident.

We had a big team of reporters, among them 16 interns, who had spent time with many of the 749 athletes representing Singapore at this Games. Their hunger, determination and belief made us believe that 80 was possible.

Along the way and 19 days of competition, there were unexpected defeats, as there were victories.

Remarkably, the women's table tennis team, with Feng Tianwei at the helm, failed to win the women's singles gold. But sprinter Shanti Pereira's 200m triumph more than made up for it.

Yet, what was perhaps most satisfying about the 84-gold haul was the spread of sports which did well.

Singapore competed in all 36 sports available, winning golds in half - an all-time high. This was punctuated by memorable performances from swimmer Joseph Schooling, silat exponent Muhammad Nur Alfian Juma'en and windsurfer Audrey Yong.

The landmark 84-gold tally - more than Singapore's combined tally from the last two Games - could not have been reached without the record-breaking haul of 26 aquatics and 10 sailing titles while contributions from table tennis (six), shooting (five) and bowling (four) were also needed.

Yet, they made up only 60 per cent of the country's golden total, a drop from recent Games when these five core sports combined for more than three-quarters of the golds won.

Instead, Singapore's improved showing was thanks to a bumper crop from less-heralded sports like canoeing, wushu, fencing and waterskiing - 19 golds between them - stepping up.

Furthermore, the host nation is allowed some leeway to pick from a pool of sports and add or reduce events. Hence, the organising committee used this prerogative to tailor the sporting programme to suit Singapore's strengths.

But even without non-core sports like floorball, netball or specially-created events in sailing and squash, Singapore would still have easily eclipsed the 70-gold mark.

For sure, this has been an extraordinary Games for Singapore, surpassing everyone's, including this paper's, expectations.

However, the question whether this result is an anomaly and can be repeated or even surpassed, is a valid one.

There are indications that Malaysia, host of the next Games in two years, will select sports that play to its strengths, thus making it harder for Singapore to dominate as it has done.

While a similar gold rush by Singapore may be unlikely, the future remains bright with a team led by Schooling and Shanti and backed by world-class sailors, bowlers and paddlers.

In fact, more than shiny pieces of metal and medal tables, the legacy of the 28th Games has been about the coming of age of Singapore's athletes.

Each of them, medal around their neck or just tears in their eyes, has been an inspiration.

Despite a swollen eye and blurred vision, there was no surrender from boxer Mohamed Hanurdeen, or any athlete in the Singapore contingent.

Even in defeat (the men's hockey team who lost in a dramatic shoot-out to Malaysia), they moved us, whether on television screens or in packed stadiums.

Athletes like long jumper Eugenia Tan, the first local woman to clear 6m, and marathoner Ashley Liew, who waited for his competitors who had got lost, also showed that one did not have to win medals to inspire.

Yesterday's closing ceremony marked the end of the Games but must also signal a new start - to use this Games as a springboard in Singapore's pursuit of grander sporting ambitions on bigger stages like the Olympic Games.

After all, what had seemed improbable at the start of June has now become reality. Or to paraphrase that old US Army saying, once the impossible is accomplished, miracles are next.

jonwong@sph.com.sg

Athletes like long jumper Eugenia Tan, the first local woman to clear 6m, and marathoner Ashley Liew, who waited for his competitors who had got lost, also showed that one did not have to win medals to inspire.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'Win or lose, every athlete has captured S'porean hearts'. Print Edition | Subscribe