Sporting Life

Athletes investing in their careers is the real world

Limited funding: How Singapore athletes cope

There is never enough in sport. Never enough shoes for impoverished feet that want to run, never enough fields for the talented who wish to play, never enough money for every dream that needs funding. And so when American middle-distance Olympic runner Nick Symmonds was looking for sponsorship in 2012 he auctioned his skin. Pay him a sum and he'd wear a temporary tattoo of your company on it.

Rummage through history and you trip over such tales. Athletes have held jobs as sausage-sellers, plumbers and gardeners as they train. A national women's football team posed nude for a calendar to raise funds. A Filipino ice skater's family mortgaged their house to get him to the Winter Olympics. In their desperation is seen their desire.

This is the real world, not the one you see on TV of golfers carrying oversized cheques and footballers with weekly salaries whose obscenity doesn't even make us blink. This is the planet of the poorly funded and almost-good, the unlucky and the waiting-for-a-break, the battlers and hopers. Athletes just trying to construct careers, not classics.

Yet this isn't a sob story, for this is life itself which is unfair and hard and offers no guarantees. Even aspiring playwrights seek funding and neglected young pianists crave support, yet eventually must invest in themselves. If we hear less of these other scrambling artists it is because sport, imprisoned by time, has a unique emotional urgency to it: The pianist has years to be great, the rower like Saiyidah Aisyah does not.

Of course, no one forced Saiyidah to row. No one forced sailors Justin Liu and Denise Lim to experiment with the catamaran, where just hiring a boat for their coach costs €150 (S$235) a day. Why not ping pong, pal? A table, a garage, have a ball.

Yes, but since when did passion bend to logic? Athletes like Liu and Lim are infected with a competitive virus we only think we understand. It's a riding on the edge of life where their catamaran is either going to rocket through or flip over. It's a willingness to fail every day for the chance to succeed once. It's a dream worth paying a price for, which is why Australian swimmer Alicia Coutts, who won five medals at the London Olympics, worked at an animal shelter cleaning out cat litter.

And so, whatever else, this is a human struggle, a desperate craving to find the better parts of themselves which deserves to be appreciated.

Essentially these athletes compete because they love it. As Liu concedes, "at the end of the day you're doing it for yourself". But it's never that simple. When athletes do well, their nations love them; when a rower wins a medal, her nation basks in her achievement; when a sailor adds to the medal table, an entire country preens. Eventually nations want to share in an athlete's success and in that case they should contribute via funding to that athlete's success.

Of course, almost every athlete thinks they deserve funding. To not consider themselves worthy would be to psychologically devalue themselves. They believe in their talent, but here is the key: Who recognises their potential? And how do officials decide how much that talent is worth in funding?

Potential is problematic, for assessing talent can be as awkward as reading tea leaves. The forgotten Freddy Adu was once considered the next Pele and the brilliant Michael Jordan was once passed over by Portland Blazers general manager Stu Inman.

Even as we reduce players to statistics - tackles made and passes executed - identifying talent is an inexact business. Some clubs spend millions on players whom they swear are footballing Picassos but turn out to be house painters. Others respond to an educated hunch and emerge as geniuses. As Alex Ferguson later said about buying Eric Cantona: "I was told I was taking a risk. But you gamble on every player. May as well gamble on one who lifts people out of their seats."

In individual sports, athletes are best funded on the basis of merit. To win a selection trial is to offer the best proof, though if you lose one race it cannot be the end of you. Encouraging co-investing, as sailing does, where the athlete also has a financial stake in his own career, has its own wisdom. If you want others to take a risk on you, then take one on yourself.

Yet funding will always remain tricky for there is no set guidebook. An athlete's form may temporarily flatten and should funding continue? If you withdraw funds, will it puncture confidence and ruin years of investment? As on a boat, what is required is balance. Most of all, as athletes take loans from parents and dip into savings - often boosted by very generous MAP awards - they need to believe the system is fair.

Till then these athletes push on. Tennis player Sarah Pang did three part-time jobs at one time. Liu and Lim mastered a new boat. Golfer Koh Sock Hwee gave maths tuition. Saiyidah lives in a tiny, curtained-off living space in Sydney. In a way, even off the field, here is the classic sporting education - humility discovered, adversity confronted, solutions found, risks taken, struggle embraced.

"The money we spend can be earned back, but our time as an athlete is short," said Liu the young philosopher. He is right. This is the time for chasing dreams and cold nights spent in a car in a foreign land. It may bring them to the Olympics or Asian Games but it is far more vital than that. It is a unique tasting of life that no funding can buy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline Athletes investing in their careers is the real world. Subscribe