The Olympic gold won by swimmer Joseph Schooling - a quest which had hitherto eluded the nation in all of its existence - is a multilayered metaphor that ought to give pause for thought even as Singaporeans celebrate this particularly sweet victory. Uppermost among what the medal represents must surely be the triumph of beating the odds - the "little red dot" challenger versus a great legend hailing from a perennial powerhouse in swimming. Here was a "kid" who had grown up adulating champion Michael Phelps and had the temerity to beat him and other world-class athletes convincingly by breaking a pre-supersuit world record in the 100m butterfly.
The achievement should inspire the young to dream big and not be cowed by being small. The self-belief needed, amply demonstrated by Schooling, might be shaken when nations go to great lengths to win, tapping technology, drugs, pricey coaches or foreign talent. But third-generation Singaporean Schooling showed that a local boy is also capable of being a world-beater at the planet's largest multi-sport event. And it can be done by pursuing what one loves best, and not necessarily via a calculated choice of sport.
Policy wonks tap various strategies to win medals like institutionalising the promotion of sports, focusing on historic strengths, zooming in on unlikely disciplines that offer better chances (such as speed skating despite a hot climate), or dangling million-dollar incentives. Yet money is not everything, illustrated by impoverished Kenya's bigger medal haul, compared with Saudi Arabia's paltry record. And size is not always a determiner as shown by small Finland's success and populous India's failure. Ultimately it goes back to the blood, sweat and tears of competitors over many years, the sacrifices of their families, and the support of many within the sporting fraternity and community.
In being quick to acknowledge such help, Schooling showed why gold befits his overall calibre. Champions who exude character offer the nation something of inestimable value. Defined as being fair, honest, gracious and generous, the character of a single sportsperson and its power to influence many is worth much more than a medal haul of gifted characters with dubious values. Unfortunately, "sport participation, in and of itself, does not appear to develop character - in fact, quite the opposite is true", according to an American movement championing positive values. Cheating has surfaced at national levels, and across different cultures, athletes are not beyond trash-talking rivals or diving on the football field. At the other end, there are heroes who've taken a different road like the rugby sevens team of tiny Fiji. Gold is won by prowess displayed publicly but its true value is secured privately in the way it touches a million hearts.