Singapore athletics has lots of catching up to do

SEA Games exploits show they're still way behind regional rivals, says SA VP Kunalan

Singapore's Soh Rui Yong celebrating after winning the SEA Games marathon. He delivered an unexpected gold medal.
Singapore's Soh Rui Yong celebrating after winning the SEA Games marathon. He delivered an unexpected gold medal.PHOTO: SINGSOC/ ACTION IMAGES

It was Singapore's best SEA Games results in athletics for more than a decade, but a yawning gap still remains between the country and its regional rivals.

The Republic collected nine medals, three each in the different colours, with the highlight undoubtedly Shanti Pereira's stunning victory in the women's 200m.

The 18-year-old became Singapore's first female sprinting champion since Glory Barnabas in 1973.

Soh Rui Yong's come-from-behind win in the men's marathon - only the second time the 23-year-old had raced in the 42.195km distance - was also unexpected.

Yet, this is not the time to bring out the bubbly, declared Singapore Athletics (SA) vice-president (training and selection) C. Kunalan.

  • 17

    Athletics powerhouse Thailand's 2015 SEA Games golds - more than the nine medals Singapore won

  • 7%

    Overall, Singapore's medal haul is a mere slice of the track and field pie

"Those were nice surprises but the three gold medals are only helping to camouflage our weaknesses," said the former national sprinter, who won 15 medals at the Seap Games, five at the Asian Games and was twice the Sportsman of the Year.

To illustrate his point, he highlighted how Singapore's nine-medal haul represented less than 7 per cent of the 138 medals on offer from the 46 track and field events at the National Stadium.

Thailand and Vietnam won 17 and 11 golds respectively and 39 and 34 medals in total.

Singapore were fifth as they also lagged behind Indonesia (7-4-4) and the Philippines (5-7-9).

Said Kunalan, 72: "So let's not get carried away. There's still plenty of room for improvement and we can do a lot better."

The national athletics body is in the midst of its review with an eye on bettering this tally at the 2017 Games in Malaysia.

For Pereira, a former Singapore Sports School student now studying at Republic Polytechnic, there is no time to rest on her laurels.

She and fellow sprinter Calvin Kang have been handed wild cards to next month's World Championships in Beijing.

Pereira is also a strong bet for the wild card at next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Said Pereira: "I took a short break after the SEA Games but now I'm back in training and, given the progress I've made in the past year, hopefully I can go faster and lower my timing at the World Championships."

Her winning time in last month's race was a new national record of 23.60sec, which was an improvement on the 23.82sec she had clocked in the morning heats.

Crucially, in less than 12 months, she has knocked off 0.39sec from her previous personal best (PB).

Making the leap to the Asian level is the next move, although that is one big step.

The top three times at last year's Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, were 23.02, 23.27 and 23.45.

Though cautious, her coach Margaret Oh is confident that Pereira is moving in the right direction.

The same could also be said of the athletics scene here, noted SA president Tang Weng Fei, after the showing from Singapore's contingent.

There were several breakthrough performances, including long jumper Eugenia Tan becoming the first local woman to clear 6m and thrower Hannah Lee capturing a discus bronze in her maiden Games outing.

More than a third of the 74-man squad - 50 of whom were Games debutants - recorded PBs in their respective events while 42 of them also achieved season best results.

Said Tang: "Overall it was a good effort by everyone, especially when you consider there's a lot of pressure to perform at home."

But while this bodes well for the future, he agreed with Kunalan that more needs to be done.

One area of concern is how to lower the attrition rate between the junior and senior levels.

Age-group records are regularly broken each year at the schools national meet and Singapore also turn in commendable performances at the Asean School Games and SEA Youth Athletics Championships, indications that there are local youngsters with potential.

But too few of them continue as they get older and Singapore is losing talent too easily, noted Kunalan.

The SA, in collaboration with ActiveSG, launched the Athletics Club Programme in February aimed at revitalising the local club scene which is crucial for identifying and developing promising athletes.

Three branches in Bishan Stadium, Bedok Stadium and the Kallang Practice Track have been set up with plans to add two more underway.

Said Kunalan: "We're doing everything we can to try and close the gap. There's momentum from the SEA Games and we cannot waste it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore Athletics Has Lots of Catching up to Do'. Print Edition | Subscribe