An Olympian bout of indigestion

Watching delayed telecast of the Games is like eating stale bread - can we stomach a month of that?

The Olympic flame will be lit in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 5 but that and the closing ceremony will be the only events you will be able to watch in Singapore when they happen.

When Usain Bolt sprints down the 100m track in a historic attempt to win gold in three successive Olympics, you can only read about it after the race.

If swimmer Joseph Schooling makes Singapore history by winning a medal in the 100m butterfly, you can't tell anyone you saw it live, not even on television.

The 31st Olympic Games will be watched live by billions of people worldwide but not a single one here will be part of that global audience.

Is this an Olympic-size loss for Singapore when one of the most-connected countries becomes unconnected from the Games, joining the likes of Myanmar, Sudan and Syria? Or does it deserve a gold medal for standing up to ever higher fees for live television coverage of the world's biggest sports event?

I can't tell, going by the softly, softly reaction to the shocking news that state broadcaster Mediacorp had failed to reach an agreement with Dentsu which holds the television rights to the Games in this part of the world.

I thought the noise from those protesting against this unsporting deprivation would sound like the Kallang Roar.


Instead the silence from our sports associations and sportsmen was so deafening you could hear a referee's whistle drop on the pitch at the Sports Hub all the way from Orchard Road.

I wanted to hear their voices because I wanted to know how much the Olympic Games meant to Singaporeans, especially those who play sports or are involved in their organisation.

I wanted to know if they believed sports was more than just an athletic activity - that it was also about building character, enriching culture and unifying communities.

I wanted to find out if Singaporeans agreed with what was written in the Olympic Charter that: "Olympism is a philosophy of life... Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."

The statement above might seem like pompous hypocrisy, but if you've ever seen Olympic athletes perform in whatever sports they do, you know you are watching the limits of human ability, effort and endurance.

It makes me feel very human when I see superhuman athletes trying to run faster, jump higher, box harder and do whatever it takes to beat the other fellow.

There is no place like the Olympics to witness it and when you watch it knowing that millions of others are doing the same, you feel a common humanity.

(It isn't the same with a delayed telecast, which is like eating stale bread.)

It would have been good for sports if the community here discussed this openly and let everyone know how strongly they felt about these issues.

But all I heard was how much beaming the Games live here would cost. I didn't hear much about sports but everything about the dollars and cents.

The problem with framing the issue in monetary terms is that it drains it of everything that sports stand for. It stops the discussion in its track, like cutting off a sprinter's legs in mid-stride.

The money is, of course, an important concern. There is a limit to how much a country should pay for television rights and it can't be squeezed for more every four years.

Indeed, broadcast rights worldwide have risen faster than Olympic records have fallen: it was US$1.2 million for the Rome Games in 1960, rising more than 2,000 times to US$2.57 billion for London in 2012 and to at least US$3.5 billion (S$4.7 billion) for Rio.

The bottom line is that viewers everywhere will have to pay more.

All this is fair enough and I think Singaporeans understand it as well as anyone. But no one has said how much is too much.

It has been reported that Dentsu is asking US$6 million from Mediacorp. Hong Kong is paying US$25 million, Thailand US$17.4 million and Malaysia more than US$10 million.

All have agreed to pay those sums, but not Singapore. Is it too much to pay for watching the best athletes in the world perform live, including the 25 from Singapore?

In fact, the country has paid quite a bit for sports in recent years, doing more than it has ever done to promote it among the people, starting with the building of the Sports Hub which cost a record-breaking $1.3 billion.

Under the Sports Excellence Scholarship programme, the Government is committed to spending $40 million over five years to support some of our best athletes as they prepare for international competition.

Those good enough to go for Olympic glory receive up to $90,000 a year for full-time training. Last year, $324.5 million was spent to host the SEA Games for the first time in 22 years.

These are big bucks and it shows that Singapore is prepared to pay serious money to develop and promote sports because it brings benefits to the people beyond the playing fields.

I didn't hear too many people complain then that these amounts were too much to pay.

A lot of them will have to get used to eating stale bread the next month.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline An Olympian bout of indigestion. Subscribe