People: Soh Rui Yong

People: Marathoner Soh Rui Yong: Rebel or voice of the sport?

Singapore marathoner believes in speaking candidly and may run for SA president one day

Dragging his weary body home to his Housing Board flat in Eunos one night, Soh Rui Yong found his mother Tay Siew Lai sitting with her laptop in the living room.

The 54-year-old teacher was anxiously refreshing her Facebook page, looking for the latest news about her son and how the online community was reacting to the national marathon runner, a sometimes polarising figure in Singapore sport.

The 26-year-old has a reputation for speaking his mind, which has occasionally led to public disagreements with officials and fellow athletes.

True to form, he told his mother: "I really don't care what the reaction is."

To which she replied "I care if you get into trouble", Soh recalled with a chuckle last Friday after training at the Kallang Practice Track.

Twice in the past two months, he has taken on the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC). The first, before August's SEA Games, arose over a breach of regulations regarding the promotion of personal sponsors on social media.

Last month, Soh - who retained his marathon gold in Kuala Lumpur - protested having to donate 20 per cent of his $10,000 Multi-Million Dollar Award Programme (MAP) prize money to Singapore Athletics (SA), a scheme devised by the SNOC to assist national sports associations on training and development.

Soh felt the SA was undeserving of the gesture, following the bitter disputes and controversies that have plagued the association over the past year. He has since agreed to donate the money, but stressed it will be done under protest.

While some see him as a troublemaker, he insists he is simply being a "straightforward, honest, to-the-point guy" who "doesn't see the point in beating about the bush when it comes to issues like that".

Part of his candidness comes from his upbringing. His parents stressed the importance of open communication with Soh and his younger sister Romaine, 22, since they were young.

He is equally honest in his interactions with his family, sharing personal details like his experiences in using dating app Tinder.

He said: "Trust works both ways, that's what I feel, and I believe trust is important to my family. I trust them with my life and we grow and support one another together."

The business administration graduate had studied at the University of Oregon (UO) in the United States. Coincidentally, UO's alumni included the late distance track star Steve Prefontaine.

Prefontaine, who once held the American record in seven different distance track events but died in 1975 at age 24 in a car crash, was famous for his frequent clashes with the country's Amateur Athletic Union as he fought for better conditions for his fellow amateur athletes.

Soh first learnt of the American through the annual Prefontaine Classic meet hosted by UO.

He said: "With lots of hard work and his immense talent, he made it to fourth place at the 1972 Olympics. And he never backed down from what he believed was right - that's inspiring.

"He was perceived as a troublemaker back then by the American officials, but he was also a hero to the athletes he was fighting for."

Already, Soh has earned the admiration of his peers.

Multiple SEA Games wakeboard champion Sasha Christian, 24, said she admired her good friend's bluntness, but added: "Sometimes that may not be how I would have done things, but everyone deals with things differently."

Media personality Divian Nair, 30, first met Soh in 2014 when shooting a documentary for StarHub and both gelled quickly.

He said: "He's always been quite open-minded but he's also a person with convicted beliefs. He comes from a good place. He always wants to improve things.

"I don't think he takes anything personally. You can be dead honest and he still accepts it."

Not everyone is as sympathetic.

Last year, a public feud ensued between Soh and fellow marathoner Mok Ying Ren after Soh criticised SA's decision to use national records as the primary criterion for wild card selection to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He had argued that the wild card should not be "wasted" on those not as well-equipped for Rio.

This led to Mok calling Soh out for a lack of respect for fellow athletes. Sprinter Timothee Yap eventually received the wild card to Rio.

Yap, 22, thought that Soh's proposed solution to his personal sponsors promotion controversy was creative and fair. Soh had suggested that for every social media post for a non-SNOC sponsor, the athlete would do one featuring an SNOC sponsor during the blackout period.

However, Yap added: "I don't agree with his methods as I feel he can settle it privately. I respect that Rui Yong is not afraid to voice his opinions, but there are better means to try and solve issues."

Top athletes like Soh tend to be more outspoken and sometimes react too quickly, said SA president Ho Mun Cheong.

"He has the right to speak up when he feels he should, but sometimes people are not happy about it," he added. "I would advise him to tone down a bit, or maybe think it over before speaking. I believe that as he grows older and becomes more mature, he might tone down."

While Soh insists that he "attacks policies not people", he acknowledges the need to "adopt a more graceful and strategic approach" and "hit with laser precision, rather than charge in Rambo-style".

And he assures that there is more to him than a raging rebel.

"I'm not an angry, frustrated person all the time, it really depends on who I'm dealing with and the situation," he said.

"I am very passionate about the things I choose to do. Perhaps I have an idealistic vision of what (the situation) in athletics should be like, because this is my passion.

"When I invest that level of time and energy and I see people pulling less than their weight, it's very easy to get frustrated."

He has tried attending meetings and sending e-mails to call for change. But unsurprisingly for a competitor who lives by the clock - his timepiece of choice is the Garmin ForeRunner 735 - he finds these channels slow or unresponsive. Which is why he turns to social media to express his views.

"Maybe this is not the best way, but at least I get people talking and this is the first step to starting a debate," he said.

More importantly, his two SEA Games golds have provided him the soapbox which he intends to fully utilise.

He said: "If I hadn't done anything and I'm speaking up, no one will really listen. I recognise that and with the result comes the platform to bring about change. So with a long-term view in mind, I'm going to do the best I can to achieve good results."

He will try to defend his SEA Games marathon crown in 2019 and hopes to be the country's first male marathon Olympian at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

"And when my track and field career winds down, who knows, if I'm still passionate about the sport, maybe I'll run for SA president one day."

It will be a move many will have much to talk about - and one which will keep his mother anxiously monitoring social media.

SPH Brightcove Video
Despite being called a "troublemaker", Singapore marathoner Soh Rui Yong said he will continue to speak his mind on "people who are not doing their jobs properly".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline People: Marathoner Soh Rui Yong: Rebel or voice of the sport? . Subscribe