SINGAPORE - It is, quite literally, a million-dollar question: Is a Paralympic gold medal worth the same as an Olympic one?
Swimmer Yip Pin Xiu's double-gold feat at the Tokyo Paralympics has roused pride in Singaporeans and also stirred discussion.
Why, ask some on social media and in letters to The Straits Times' Forum page, is the cash payout for an athlete winning a gold medal at the Paralympics $200,000 - or one-fifth of the $1 million reward dangled for those at the Olympics?
Joseph Schooling, after his historic win in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, is the only athlete who has earned the seven-figure incentive. Yip, meanwhile, is also the only para-athlete to win gold at the Paralympics. Her two triumphs in Tokyo, in the S2 50m and 100m backstroke, took her tally to five since the Beijing Games in 2008.
In a wide-ranging chat with The Straits Times on Friday (Sept 1), she said she was eager to discuss the topic even as she conceded there was a "conflict of interest" with her being a recipient of the payout.
The 29-year-old, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, said: "As I have said before, I do this not for the money, but at the same time the disparity is very big and it does go to show it is not equal, you know?
"At the end of the day, there is a certain inequality there, regardless of what reasons there are."
Monetary incentives for Paralympic medallists are administered by the Singapore National Paralympic Council (SNPC) through its Athlete Achievement Award (AAA) programme. For Olympic medallists, the reward is disbursed by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC), under the Major Games Award Programme (MAP).
The Tote Board is the primary sponsor of both programmes, which feature contributions from the private sector as well.
The Straits Times has contacted the SNPC chairman Teo-Koh Sock Miang for comment.
Some countries have already adopted equal reward systems, such as Malaysia (since 2016), the United States (2021) and just last week, Australia joined them, although the reward sums in all these countries are lower than those offered in Singapore.
Of countries and territories that have publicly shared their cash payouts for athletes at the Olympics, Singapore's is reportedly the highest. Taiwan, which offers champions an NT$20 million (S$971,179) bonus, is the next most generous.
The disparity between rewards for a Paralympic and Olympic gold medal first came to prominence after Yip won her first as a 16-year-old in 2008. It even led to a discussion in Parliament, which resulted in a doubling of the reward to its current amount.
After her successes in Tokyo, women's organisation Aware and the Disabled People's Association Singapore issued a joint statement on Saturday evening to call for a combination of the AAA and MAP schemes so that athletes are rewarded "closer to parity".
Yip told ST that she learnt of the shift in the Australian government's position after seeing a friend and fellow Paralympic medallist shedding tears of joy on Instagram.
The situation is different in Singapore, she stressed, because para-athletes here have enjoyed good support from government bodies such as Sport Singapore particularly over the last decade. The growth of the para sports movement over the world and in Singapore, said Yip, has been "phenomenal".
Her coach, former national swimmer Mark Chay, also applauded the breadth of the intangible support behind elite para-athletes, and opined that addressing the gulf between the sums of the AAA and MAP rewards was "not an organisational issue".
Instead, he threw the gauntlet down to corporate Singapore and wider society to step up.
Mr Chay, a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) who competed at the Sydney and Athens Games, said: "The SNOC is able to do this (offer $1 million) because they are able to raise money (through sponsors) and I think this is something the SNPC needs to do.
"The general public needs to come in (to) support our athletes. If you believe the para-athletes should be rewarded the same, please donate to the SNPC and the SDSC (Singapore Disability Sports Council). They are the ones who really need the funds to continue the great progress we have been making."
Former SDSC president Kevin Wong echoed Mr Chay's sentiments and said: "Society has matured over the last 10 years or so to agree that equality is important and is something we need.
"Now it comes down to whether the view is the same from a monetary perspective. The onus is on corporate Singapore and the Tote Board, which has been a very strong supporter of sport."
Some have advocated for narrowing the gap between the rewards by raising the amounts offered for a Paralympic medal, others have suggested doing that in addition to lowering the amount for an Olympic one.
For Yip's former teammate and close friend Theresa Goh, who won a bronze medal in the women's SB4 100m backstroke in her Paralympic swansong in Rio in 2016, numbers should not be the focus.
She said: "The amount isn't the priority. It's more important to me that the amount is the same."
One commonly held argument justifying the unequal reward is that the depth of the competitive field in the Paralympics is shallower than that at the Olympics.
The Olympics featured 11,656 athletes in 33 sports. The Paralympics hosted 4,534 across 22.
Additionally, at the Paralympics, many events are sub-divided into several classifications to cater for differing disabilities. This means that there are fewer Paralympians competing for each gold medal compared with the Olympics, making them supposedly less competitive.
It is a position Yip has heard many times over the years, but she added: "What you value in an athlete - the resilience, the training ethic, the grit and everything put in to get to the podium - I wouldn't say I've put in any less than an Olympic gold medallist or world-class athlete.
"At the end of the day, it's about gold medals and whether you value the hard work you put into the pursuit of excellence."
Added Chay: "There's a gap in remuneration… but there's no gap in terms of effort, time, blood, tears and sweat put in by the athletes at the Paralympics and those we see at the Olympics."
Goh, 34, said that this argument of level of competitiveness could easily be applied to different sports and events among able-bodied athletes at the Olympics.
"How does one really determine how competitive is competitive enough?" countered Goh, who was born with congenital spina bifida which affects the spine and legs.
"For example if a new sport is added to the Olympic Games, by virtue of it being newer, wouldn't that mean there're fewer in the competitive field? Do they deserve less then?
"The truth, to me, is that (some) don't think disabled athletes deserve to be treated the same as able-bodied athletes."
Wong, who led the SDSC from 2016 to 2020, said he is confident financial support from the private sector can fund an equal million-dollar reward for Paralympic gold medallists.
He added that striving for equality could also extend to other areas, such as considering para-athletes for categories at the annual Singapore Sports Awards, which honour deserving individuals and teams in sports.
While he said he understood the ceremony is chiefly led by the SNOC - which oversees only able-bodied athletes - Wong pointed to how the United States' Olympic Committee in June 2019 formally moved to change its name and structure to incorporate para-sports, as a possible way forward for the Singapore set-up to become more inclusive organisationally.
In any case, Yip, who served as an NMP from 2018 to 2020, has already made plans to give back. She has a goal to set up a swim school for able-bodied and disabled kids before she competes at the 2024 Paris Games.
"Whatever I have received, I would also like to give back to society," she said. "I'll be donating to causes, helping sports grow, and this swim school idea is also really to impart life values, not just the skill of swimming, to the younger generation and I'm excited for that."
What Singapore Olympic medallists get
Gold medal: $1 million (individual event), $1.5 million (team event)
Silver: $500,000 (individual), $750,000 (team)
Bronze: $250,000 (individual), $375,000 (team)
- Note: 20 per cent of each cash award goes back to the respective national sports associations for future training and development.
What Singapore Paralympic medallists get
Gold: $200,000 (individual event), $300,000 (team event)
Silver: $100,000 (individual, $150,000 (team)
Bronze: $50,000 (individual), $75,000 (team)
- Note: 20 per cent of each cash award goes back to the Singapore National Paralympic Council for future training and development
- *The amount given to Paralympic medallists was doubled in 2008.
Other countries and territories
Olympics - Gold: A$20,000 (S$19,989). Silver: A$15,000. Bronze: A$10,000.
Paralympics: Equal (since 2021).
Olympics - Gold: HK$5 million (S$863,428.39). Silver: HK $2.5 million. Bronze: HK$1.25 million. Amount of team events is doubled.
Paralympics - Gold: HK$800,000. Silver: HK$400,000. Bronze: HK$200,000.
Olympics - Gold 75 lakhs (S$137,840.27). Silver: Rs 50 lakhs. Bronze: Rs 30 lakhs.
Paralympics: Equal (since 2012).
Olympics - Gold: RM1 million (S$323,688.88). Silver: RM500,000. Bronze: RM100,000.
- Note: Medallists also have a monthly pension for life - RM5,000, RM3,000 and RM1,000 for gold, silver and bronze respectively.
Paralympics: Equal (since 2016).
Olympics - Gold: US$37,500 (S$50,327.42). Silver: US$22,500. Bronze: US$15,000.
Paralympics: Equal (since 2018 Winter Games).