Asian Editors Circle

Money, culture and Asia's chase for Olympic gold

After two weeks of intense competitions among the world’s finest athletes, the Rio Games has ended.

New records were set and new heroes were born, among them, Singapore’s young swimmer Joseph Schooling who staged one of the greatest upsets of the Olympics.

As defined by Daniel Goffenberg of CBC Sports, for a great upset to happen, “You need an overwhelming favourite, a gutsy underdog, and a stage big enough for the outcome to matter.”

Schooling’s victory over Michael Phelps fit the bill perfectly. He was the underdog from a tiny country that had never won an Olympic gold while Phelps was the mightiest, most decorated Olympian in history with 23 gold medals. Not only that, Schooling set an impressive new record of 50.39secs for the 100m butterfly event. 

When news of Singapore’s first gold medal broke, it quickly overtook other stories emanating from Rio, eclipsing its Asean neighbours’ own Olympic gold successes: Vietnam’s shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh in the 10m air pistol competition and Thailand’s weightlifters Sopita Tanasan and Sukanya Srisurat in their individual weight classes. It certainly overtook Malaysian diving duo Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong’s silver in the women’s synchronised 10m platform diving.

All are no small feats but there is a total of 28 sports in the Games, not counting those with multiple disciplines, and the most popular ones for a global audience are gymnastics, track & field and swimming, according to

Rio 2016 Olympic Games badminton mixed doubles winners - (from left) silver medallists Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying of Malaysia; gold medallists Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir of Indonesia; and bronze medallists Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei of China. PHOTO: REUTERS

Among Asian nations competing in the Games, China and Japan have been traditionally the strong contenders in gymnastics and swimming. For most other Asian competitors, the sports they excel in tend to be the ones with less mass appeal like archery, shooting, judo, badminton and for some strange reason, women’s weightlifting.

Apart from the Thais, Taiwanese, Filipina and Indonesian female weightlifters have also won medals for their countries. In the glamorous track & field events, however, there doesn’t seem to be any Asian athlete who can challenge the likes of Usain Bolt.

China remains the sporting powerhouse of Asia, sending its largest delegation of 416 athletes to Rio. But this Olympics has been a disappointment to the Chinese; their medal haul, although ranked third, after the United States and Britain, is far below what they got at 2012 London Games. 

Meanwhile, the other Asian powerhouse, India, with the second largest population in the world, has never done well at the Olympics which has been the subject of intense debate among Indian and foreign sports pundits.

Sadly, its fortunes didn't change, despite sending its biggest ever contingent of 118 sportsmen and women to Rio. Its one silver and one bronze fall very short of the hoped for 10-14 medals, as reported by The Statesman newspaper.

Winning an Olympic gold medal is the Holy Grail of sports. 

The pomp that surrounds the Games gives the gold medallists unparalleled honour and prestige. And the nations they represent go into collective convulsions of ecstasy and nationalistic joy, which make their governments equally happy and proud.

That’s why many governments pour millions into sports programmes to nurture and train promising talents and offer great financial rewards to successful Olympians. 

Schooling will get S$1million from the Singapore Government for his gold medal. Vietnam’s Hoang reportedly will receive US$100,000 (S$134,000), a figure, according to AFP, that is nearly 50 times greater than the country's average national income, of around US$2,100.

Malaysia, too, rewards its successful athletes handsomely under its National Sports Council incentive scheme. An Olympic gold medal winner will receive RM1million (S$336,000) and a monthly pension of RM5,000; a silver medallist, RM300,000, a RM3,000 pension while a bronze winner gets RM100,000 and a RM2,000 pension.

Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Thailand have similar monetary reward schemes. North Korea uses a carrot and stick scheme:  huge rewards for medal winners and hard labour for the failed ones.

Several western countries have the same financial bait, including the United States, France, Russia and Germany but at a lower rate.

Does it work?

The Technology Policy Institute looked for a co-relation and was mindful of variables like country size and income, “since those are surely the biggest predictor of how many medals a country will win: more populous countries are more likely to have that rare human who is physically built and mentally able to become an Olympic athlete, while richer countries are more likely to be able to invest in training those people.”

The researchers found no correlation between monetary payments and medals and said it was not surprising in some countries. In the United States, for example, a US$25,000 cash award would be dwarfed by million-dollar endorsements the sportsperson could get.

The researcher also set out to see if the results be different for countries with lower opportunities for endorsements. Their conclusion:  “overall the evidence suggests that these payments don’t increase the medal count” either.

Rather, countries that do well are those with a longstanding sporting culture that values and nurtures their athletes long before they qualify for the Olympics. 

That is evident in Western societies where sportsmen, even at the college level, are feted and idolised. In Asia, however, the emphasis is more on book-learning and earning prestigious degrees.

The BBC quotes Indian Olympic Association head Narayana Ramachandran as saying India's sorry performance is more than just a shortage of cash or organisation.

"Sport has always taken a back seat vis-a-vis education. Most Indian families would prefer their children became dentists or accountants than Olympians, he says. 

That attitude, however, is surely changing as more Asian sportsmen and women go professional and are able to make a good living. 

Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, hailed as the greatest Asian fighter of all time, is so successful he is able to cross over to acting and even politics. In Malaysia, its most popular sportsman, badminton star Lee Chong Wei who unfortunately couldn't deliver the Olympic gold, is a multi-millionaire with a number of endorsements under his belt.

For now, it is still the Western countries that dominate the Olympic medal tally table. But it’s only a matter of time before more Asian nations, once no-hopers at the Games, rise up the charts.

It has already started. The Rio Games will go down in history as a watershed for Asean, with two member states – Singapore and Vietnam – winning their first gold medals. For Malaysia, even though this was its most successful Olympic outing with three silver and one bronze, the gold medal remained painfully elusive.

So it didn't happen for her athletes at Rio but it can in Tokyo in the 2020 Games.  After all, the Little Red Dot has shown the wildest dream can be a reality.

  • The writer was the former group chief editor of The Star Media Group Malaysia. This is the eighth article in a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'Money, culture and Asia's chase for Olympic gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe