Athletics: Leaked WhatsApp chat exposes internal strife at Singapore Athletics

A screengrab of the leaked WhatsApp conversation involving key officials and Singapore Athletics' Sports Development and Performance team.
A screengrab of the leaked WhatsApp conversation involving key officials and Singapore Athletics' Sports Development and Performance team.

SINGAPORE - Trouble continues to brew at Singapore Athletics (SA), casting a pall over the athletes' recent good showings and leaving track and field's bid to put up a creditable show at the SEA Games in doubt.

Photos of a WhatsApp conversation involving key officials and SA's Sports Development and Performance (SDP) team made its rounds on Sunday (June 18), reflecting the internal turmoil within the sport's local governing body as well as the deep resentment officials appear to hold against each other.

The conversation was not dated, but it is believed the photos were taken during the Thailand Open last week, where a handful of athletes did well to post national records and personal bests.

In the conversation, SA vice-president (training and selection) Govindasamy Balasekaran was shown to be instructing staff to "get good evidence" to be shown to "P" - believed to be SA president Ho Mun Cheong - and "force him to get disciplinary action" on coaches Margaret Oh (sprint) and David Yeo (pole vault).

Balasekaran also said: "Margaret needs to get into trouble so we can take action on her."

SA staff such as technical director Volker Herrmann, SDP manager Ong Wan Xin and senior executive Shalindran Sathiyanesan were also part of said conversation.

Balasekaran had suggested in the WhatsApp group that the two coaches concerned are Ho's "favourites" and that evidence had to be sourced for the SA president so that he "will then shut up".

When contacted, the SA vice-president, besides being enraged that this was, to him, an "invasion of privacy", also suggested that the photos had been leaked by SA president Ho, with whom he has been at loggerheads for months.

The discord within the SA top brass came to a head last month, when Ho called for an extraordinary general meeting to hold snap polls and elect a new management committee. The election did not happen after the meeting was called off a day before it was slated to take place.

Said Balasekaran: "The text messages were taken out of context. It's a private conversation between people in my team.

"It's an invasion of personal privacy... was obtained illegally and being used against us to divide SA - again. It shows poor maturity."

When asked about his suggestion about obtaining evidence to get the coaches "into trouble", the SA vice-president - he is an associate professor at the National Institute of Education and head of its physical education and sports science department - said his team are merely working towards what they feel is best for the entire team.

He said: "If she (Oh) doesn't go by the book, then we need evidence to do something. We are trying to get athletes together but the president is trying to undermine everyone.

"He (Ho) is not doing his job at all - he's been creating all the infighting. He's not a leader - simple as that."

It is believed that the SA officials' beef against the respective coaches surround disagreements concerning their charges. 

One particular dispute could potentially mean the Republic's fastest woman, SEA Games 200m champion Shanti Pereira, could be dropped from the 4x100m relay.

The national record holder in both the 100m and 200m sprints is expected to meet SA officials on Monday in a bid to find common ground regarding her participation at the centralised training camp in Taiwan next month.

The episode, however, has already caused both the sprinter and her long-time coach Oh undue stress in the lead-up to the defence of the athlete's SEA Games title in Kuala Lumpur in two months' time.

A tearful Oh told The Straits Times on Sunday: "I don't know why this is happening. Maybe I've been asking too many questions. I feel like I have to keep watching my back.

"The secretariat and the high-performance staff are supposed to support us. I've devoted almost 40 years of my life to athletics. It's very sad that things are like this."

Yeo, meanwhile, said his conscience is clear. Said the pole vault coach, who also lectures at Republic Polytechnic: "Whenever I do things, I do it in the right way so in that sense, I feel safe.

"But I'm a very independent party. I do my own thing, I don't associate myself with anybody and certainly don't consider myself the president's favourite. If that's how others want to see it, then so be it."

Ho has raised the issue with SA management committee members and also spoken to the association's legal advisers about the matter.

But while he lambasted the timing and conduct of the officials involved and has even contemplated setting up a committee to investigate the matter, Ho said no action will be taken for now.

Said Ho, who also learnt of the issue after he was shown the WhatsApp conversation: "These people are supposed to help the athletes - what a joke. When you go after coaches, it's also an attack on the athletes.

"For the moment, I want to keep our focus on the SEA Games as I don't want to affect the athletes' training."

But the SA chief, however, did not hold back when asked about the acrimony that appears to have developed among officials, coaches and athletes since German Herrmann came on board in April.

"He's high-handed," said Ho. "When you're hired as a technical director, your main job is to mentor the coaches and transfer technical knowledge. He should work closely with athletes and coaches.

"All these are irritations and disruptions that affect the athletes and coaches. We should be athlete-centric."

The German, who is on a two-year contract, said he would prefer the focus stays on athletes' progress on the track.

He said: "A huge amount of time is being spent discussing this, which has nothing to do with the sport. I hope people focus more on the necessity of training.

"I would like to focus on working with athletes and coaches and on the major Games that are coming up."