SINGAPORE - Top national marathoner Soh Rui Yong has once again been omitted from the list of athletes selected for the SEA Games, despite meeting the qualification mark for two events for the regional meet that will take place in Hanoi in May.
His name was not among the 330 athletes across 29 sports who were given the green light to compete at the biennial competition, which was sent out by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) in a media statement on Wednesday (Feb 16).
The current situation mirrors the one he was in before the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines, where he was not selected despite comfortably meeting the qualification mark in place.
The 12-strong selection committee for the Hanoi Games was chaired by SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin and includes vice-presidents Juliana Seow and Ben Tan; honorary treasurer Lee Wung Yew; Singapore Cycling Federation president Hing Siong Chen; Basketball Association of Singapore president Koh Koon Teck; Singapore Gymnastics president Patrick Liew; SNOC athletes' commission chairman Mark Chay; Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin; Tan Chen Kee from the Ministry of Education; lawyer Lau Kok Keng, and billionaire chairman of professional football club Lion City Sailors Forrest Li. The latter five are co-opted members.
In response to ST queries, an SNOC spokesman stressed that its selection criteria "has been well-publicised and communicated" to all national sports associations, including Singapore Athletics, since 2020.
"Such criteria include meeting objective qualifying standards, as well as non-performance related standards and qualities such as attitude and behaviour towards coaches, fellow athletes and officials (whether in relation to sporting matters or otherwise), conduct and character which may affect the reputation, image, values or best interests of the athlete or the sport, and the ability to demonstrate team spirit and work well with teammates and officials," the spokesman noted.
The SNOC, added the spokesman, rejected SA's nomination for Soh's participation because his conduct "fell short of the standards of attitude and behaviour the SNOC expects of and holds its athletes to", which it had also stated in 2019.
The spokesman added: "Since then, Soh's conduct and behaviour has continued to fall short of those standards.
"There has been no attempt by him to make amends, correct or apologise for his conduct and behaviour. Instead, there have been continued and persistent actions by Soh to challenge, mock, threaten and/or disrespect organisations and individuals including the SNOC.
"The SNOC views such conduct and behaviour as unbecoming of an athlete that wishes to be selected to represent his country at major Games, and as contrary to the aforesaid requirement of the Olympic Charter."
Soh, who is in London where he is pursuing a law degree, reacted to the announcement by saying his "objective track record speaks for itself".
He also disagreed with SNOC's statement that he made no effort to make amends with them, saying he had in January met with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who offered to "help mediate (the) situation".
"I will make it clear here, for SNOC and for everyone else," Soh added.
"As far as I’m concerned, any disputes in the past is long water under the bridge for me. I’m happy to make amends and resolve matters, but it takes two hands to clap.
"On my part, apologies for any inconveniences that have arisen from my past actions and apologies that Singapore will once again miss out on a marathon gold medal as things stand. Good luck to the rest of the team competing in Vietnam."
Soh, who won back-to-back marathon gold medals at the 2015 and 2017 SEA Games, had met qualification marks for the 1,500m and marathon events in Hanoi with times - 4min 05.19sec and 2hr 22min 59sec - that bettered the gold medal-winning efforts at the 2019 SEA Games.
He later dropped out of the 1,500m so his place could go to 21-year-old Ethan Yan. Yan was the third-quickest Singaporean to qualify for the event, behind Soh and Jeevaneesh Soundararajah, and each nation is allowed only two representatives in each athletics event at the SEA Games.
But, pending an appeal - which Soh said he would consult Singapore Athletics (SA) president Lien Choong Luen before deciding on - the 30-year-old will now not be headed to Hanoi at all.
In 2019, the SNOC rejected his nomination from the SA, saying there had been "numerous instances" where Soh's conduct fell short of its expectations.
While they did not cite specific instances, the SNOC and Soh have clashed on a number of occasions over issues such as the athlete's breach of regulations regarding the promotion of personal sponsors at the 2017 SEA Games and later, his initial objection to its mandatory requirement to donate 20 per cent of his $10,000 cash payout as reward for his win back to SA for training and development.
The non-selection led to an ugly public spat and even the threat of legal action by both parties, which did not go further.
The Hanoi SEA Games will feature 526 events contested across 40 sports.
Among the noteworthy inclusions for Team Singapore are the national women's football team, which will make a first appearance at the SEA Games since 2003. The men's team, which are seeking a first gold medal at the biennial Games, also earned the nod.
At the last edition in the Philippines in 2019, Singapore's largest away contingent of 659 athletes competing across 48 sports returned with a haul of 53 gold, 46 silver and 68 bronze medals.
The 2015 Games on home soil remains Team Singapore’s best performance (84-73-102) while the 2017 edition in Kuala Lumpur (58-59-71) is its best away Games.
Timeline of Soh's non-selection saga
August 2017: Soh Rui Yong receives formal warning from the SNOC, following an infringement of regulations regarding the promotion of personal sponsors during a blackout period ahead of the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.
He goes on to retain the marathon gold medal.
September 2017: Soh protests having to donate 20 per cent of his $10,000 cash payout from SNOC as reward for his win back to SA for training and development.
He feels the association is undeserving of the gesture, after the disputes and controversies that have plagued SA over the previous 12 months. Soh eventually relents.
October 2018: Reacting to a social media post of fellow marathoner Ashley Liew's act of sportsmanship at the 2015 SEA Games that garnered an international accolade, special recognition from SNOC, and even praise from the Prime Minister, Soh says Liew's version of events is "simply not true".
This sets off a long and public dispute between the two runners - with SNOC backing Liew - and even legal action, with a court eventually finding Soh guilty of defamation against Liew last September. Soh was ordered to pay $180,000.
The case is under appeal.
August 2019: Soh is omitted from SNOC's list of athletes for the Manila SEA Games. The SNOC says he fell short of "standards of attitude and behaviour" it expects of national athletes. The fallout from this leads him to file defamation proceedings against SA and a former official.
He dropped the former in October 2020, but the latter case is still before the courts.
December 2021: Soh meets the Hanoi Games marathon qualifying mark with a national record.
February 2022: Soh's nomination for the SEA Games is rejected.