Athletics: Singapore aim for resurgence at Hanoi SEA Games

Sprinter Marc Brian Louis (centre) is one of the 34 athletes representing Singapore at the SEA Games in Hanoi. ST PHOTO: THADDEUS ANG

SINGAPORE - Over the last three editions of the SEA Games, Singapore's athletes have won just 20 out of a total of 417 medals on offer in track and field.

That share of about 5 per cent makes it even more miserable when one considers that top female sprinter Shanti Pereira accounts for over a quarter of them alone.

While a return to Singapore's golden era in the 1970s when C. Kunalan and Chee Swee Lee dominated the region is not likely any time soon, there is however optimism in the air as the May 12-23 SEA Games in Hanoi approaches.

Out of the 34 athletes who have earned the nod for the Games, almost half - 15 - are aged 23 or under, with a healthy spread across various events.

Some of these new faces, who were in action at the Singapore Open Track and Field Championships at the Home of Athletics over the weekend, are also in contention for medals across the sprints, hurdles, high jump and middle distance events based on form.

Teen sprinter Marc Brian Louis, for instance, clocked 10.67 seconds to place second in the 100m on Sunday (April 17), ahead of reigning SEA Games champion Haiqal Hanafi (10.75sec) of Malaysia. Another Malaysian, Jonathan Nyepa won the race in 10.66sec.

Louis, 19, grabbed headlines in December when he ran a 10.39sec effort at a local meet to clock the third-best time by a Singaporean. The Republic has won only one 100m gold at the SEA Games, when Kunalan triumphed in Myanmar in 1969.

High jumper Kampton Kam, 20, was also in good form when he won the event on Saturday, clearing 2.20m - just one centimetre off the gold medal winning height at the last SEA Games in 2019. The last time a Singaporean man won the event was in 1975, when Noor Azhar bagged his third gold following his victories in 1973 and 1969.

Gary Yeo, Singapore Athletics' vice-president of training and selection, said that Louis and Kam are part of a younger group of athletes the national body hopes to groom for the future.

"The association is focusing on generating a road map for this younger generation of athletes together with (national agency) Sport Singapore," said Yeo, a former sprinter who won four 4x100m relay silvers from 2009 to 2015 and a 100m silver in 2011.

"We are working on a four-year plan for this group of individuals to help them take that next step up. For these athletes, the first thing is getting consistency in terms of results, and when that comes, we can think about medals. And for those who have not medalled at the SEA Games, this is their first opportunity."

This rejuvenation of Singapore's athletics contingent is also embodied by the resurgence of the men's 4x100m relay team.

After Yeo, Amirudin Jamal and Lee Cheng Wei hung up their spikes following a silver medal at the 2015 SEA Games - setting a national record of 39.24sec in the process - the men's sprint team struggled to rebuild.

They placed sixth at the next games in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 and did not even earn the nod to compete in the Philippines in 2019.

But at the Australian Track and Field Championships earlier this month, the quartet of Louis, Joshua Chua, Xander Ho and Ian Koe clocked 40.07sec. At the Singapore Open on Sunday, they finished second in 40.09sec. Those were the best two times by any Singaporean quartet since 2015.

Chua, who at 22 is the most senior member of the team having been in the fold since 2016, said: "There's a sense of brotherhood with this team... I feel like we are a lot more supportive of one another now, even if someone takes someone else's place. We keep each other sharp."

Chua said he endured "a lot of self-doubt" and considered stopping running over the last seven years but was "glad I stuck through it all", as he credited his personal coach Melvin Tan for keeping faith with him.

National relays coach Luis Cunha said: "We have three weeks to give this team a boost and I have hope this team can... go below 40 seconds.

"I remember in 2015, we were the fourth (ranked) team but we ended up getting (silver). So maybe something similar can happen at this SEA Games."

Tyeisha Khoo, 19, rewrote the junior (Under-20) national record in the heptathlon at the Singapore Open, scoring 3,688 over seven events. The previous mark of 3,520 was set by Hannah Tan in 2018.

Singaporean athletes to look out for in Hanoi:

Michelle Sng (women's high jump)

Sng, who won a gold medal in 2017, has rewritten the national record four times with the current mark of 1.86m set last October.

She did not have foreign competition to push her at the Singapore Open but still cleared 1.81m - the gold-medal winning height from 2019.

Ang Chen Xiang (men's 110m hurdles)

The 27-year-old set a new national record of 13.97secs in January.

Not only did it match the gold-medal winning time of Filipino Clinton Bautista in 2019, it was also the best of any South-east Asian athlete since then.

Ang clocked a modest 14.24s at the Singapore Open.

Kampton Kam (men's high jump)

Kam, 20, cleared 2.20m for top spot at the Singapore Open.

The height was just 1cm off the gold-medal winning mark in 2019 and 2cm off Wong Yew Tong's national record from 1995.

Malaysian Lee Hup Wei pipped compatriot Nauraj Singh to the gold in 2019 with a countback. Lee has since retired ,meaning Singh is the man to beat.

While Singh's personal best of 2.30m is impressive, he has been embroiled in a spat with his national association in recent months.

Shanti Pereira (women's 100m and 200m)

Singapore's top woman sprinter said her form has been affected by the recent transition from student to working full-time as a lifestyle writer.

The 25-year-old clocked 11.93sec and 24.58sec in the 100m and 200m respectively at the Singapore Open, some way off her national records of 11.58sec and 23.60sec.

But she has the experience to deal with adversity and has six SEA Games medals, including a gold medal from 2015.

Marc Brian Louis (men's 100m and 200m)

The 19-year-old clocked 10.67 seconds to place second in the 100m at the Singapore Open, ahead of reigning SEA Games champion Haiqal Hanafi (10.75sec) of Malaysia.

Louis grabbed headlines in December when he ran a 10.39sec effort at a local meet to clock the third-best time by a Singaporean. His time was also just 0.02sec off U.K. Shyam's 2001 national mark of 10.37sec.

Jeevaneesh Soundararajah (men's 1,500m)

He clocked a personal best of 4:00.99 at the Singapore Open to finish ahead of 2019 SEA Games silver medallist Mariano Masano of the Philippines.

However, Jeeevaneesh still finished behind another Filipino Alfrence Braza (3:59.19) and Malaysian Prabudass Krishnan, who won in 3:54.23.

The 29-year-old played down talks of an unexpected medal but has aimed for a sub-4min effort in Hanoi, which could put him in contention.

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