Rio 2016: Where Should Singapore Go From Joseph Schooling's Gold?

The Olympic Games Rio 2016 are over, and this means that we put our expertise on perfect cartwheels and splash radius back at the back of our minds.

Now we stop googling “how fast can an average person run?” to get a reference point as to where we stand as average human beings.

This season was particularly significant and different for Singapore, and every uninformed Singaporean knows the reason: Joseph Schooling. He clinched a gold medal in the 100m butterfly, the first ever Olympic gold in Singapore history. He had to beat Michael Phelps (the Michael Phelps), to do that. Our Snapchat’s Olympic stamp medal count went up to 1. We reignited the Singapore pride we usually fish out once a year for National Day, and it has been crazy.

Joseph Schooling came back a national hero, and well-deservedly so. A woman gave up her first-class seat on the plane for his mother. Brands clamoured to utilise his glory for advertising. Everyone wanted to know more about him – his favourite carrot cake stall and all. Rumours ran wild – “my sister’s friend’s boyfriend’s brother swam with him once…”.

But what does this mean for Singapore as a whole? Why is Joseph Schooling’s win so significant? Will it continue being significant as the hype dies down?

Many clamour to meet Joseph Schooling, national hero. (Photo Credit: Today Online)
Many clamour to meet Joseph Schooling, national hero. (Photo Credit: Today Online)

Why is Joseph Schooling’s win significant?

Most of this has been debated to death on numerous people’s Facebook comment sections: It is Singapore’s first ever gold medal. He set a national, Asian, as well as Olympic record.

More importantly, Joseph Schooling is Singaporean.

“Is he really?” Some might ask. After all, he trained in USA. His Facebook profile put Texas as his hometown. He was deferred from National Service, something that is considered a core experience to almost every Singaporean male.

But this fact remains – he was born, and for a part, raised, in Singapore. Locals who used to do competitive swimming in primary and secondary school knew him, saw him, and competed against him. He knows what carrot cake is. He went through PSLE. In most aspects, he used to be a Singaporean kid, just like us.

This makes his win particularly significant, because he is not “imported” talent. And this sparks a realisation – the next Olympic gold medallist could be sitting in a primary school classroom right now, he/she could be your neighbour’s kid, or even yours.

What Joseph Schooling did was set a precedence. Aspiring local athletes no longer have to look to Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt for inspiration, for we have our own. It is suddenly viewed as achievable, that they can be the next Michael Phelps, or Usain Bolt. Joseph Schooling represents this: a local has the potential to be the best in the world.

This might cause parents to think twice before dismissing their child’s dreams to be a full-time athlete. Maybe the time has come that sports is not just merely a side-project, a hobby or an advantage to plump up resumes and get direct admissions into schools. Maybe it would not be something that most people give up as they trade rackets for suits and ties, but a legitimate career.

(Photo Credit: Yahoo News)
(Photo Credit: Yahoo News)

Where do we go from here?

However, a lot still has to change in Singapore for this to happen. We cannot gloss over the fact that Joseph Schooling, although a Singaporean, achieved what he did mostly because of his tenacious parents, who brought him to USA to receive professional training. As we learn about his story, the failure of the local system to support aspiring local sportsmen becomes apparent. This is also the issue that some have with calling his win a win for Singapore. In a sense, we still do not have locally bred Olympic medal winners, because Joseph Schooling had to train in USA most of his life.

There have been improvements with sentiments towards sports and sportsmen in Singapore. Singapore organised the 28th Southeast Asian Games just last year, and built the Singapore Sports Hub in 2014 with the intention to promote a culture of sports in our city-state. There are also talks about deferment from National Service, and whether athletes should get such rights. But more has to be done, and Joseph Schooling’s win has the potential to be the catalyst for much more.

A system needs to be built, one that encourages and supports sportsmen. Right now, the system in Singapore, such as the mandatory conscription to National Service and strict emphasis on academic results, provides leeway only for a selected few. To be a sportsman, you have to prove that you are extraordinary, a league above the rest from a young age, and even then, training is at your own expense, and is something that has to be juggled with numerous other things.

Other than the infrastructure, it is also important that we, as a population, adjust our mindsets. We now know that we have the potential to excel not just regionally, but worldwide, and that is an incredible feat for Singapore, an incredibly young and tiny nation, but we need to give recognition and support where it is due.

We need to talk about the Paralympics as well, that will be held in Rio from 7 – 18 September this year. Remember Yip Pin Xiu, a Singaporean Paralympic, who won a gold medal in the 50m backstroke in the 2008 Summer Paralympics, setting a world record? She has broken numerous records since then, one of the latest being a world record in the 50m back race at the ASEAN Para Games (APG) last year.

Yip Pin Xiu at 2015 ASEAN Para Games (Photo Credit: Today Online)
Yip Pin Xiu at 2015 ASEAN Para Games (Photo Credit: Today Online)

We need to give continuous support to our athletes as a nation, not jump onto the bandwagon when appropriate. This is also a lesson that can be applied to other budding disciplines in Singapore, like the arts scene.

It takes years to build an infrastructure, and even longer to cultivate a mind-set, but hopefully we can move towards being a country where athletes and artists are consistently supported both by the government and by the nation as a whole.

Cover Photo: Sport Singapore
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