Lessons aplenty from S'pore's 2008 silver

Above: Gymnast Lim Heem Wei’s Olympic entry shows that sports bodies here are on the right path to guide their athletes to success.

Flashback to Aug 15, 2008, when the Singapore women's table-tennis team were locked in a titanic semi-final clash with South Korea at the Beijing Olympics.

It went down thrillingly to the wire, as Singapore fended off the Koreans 3-2 in the four-singles, one-doubles series, with Feng Tianwei clinching that all-important singles victory against Park Mi Young.

That semi-final win guaranteed Singapore a silver medal - its first Olympic medal since Tan Howe Liang won a silver at the 1960 Rome Games.

So ended the long, 48-year medal drought, but what was most memorable about that 2008 silver medal was how hard it was to win it: The South Koreans were wily and obstinate opponents who refused to yield any easy points.

It drove home the fact that no Olympic medal will come easily for Singapore.

This is no mere South-east Asia Games-level competition; clinching an Olympic medal takes an inordinate amount of effort, determination and consistency.

Four years on, the same women paddlers - Feng, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu - are poised to resume their quest for another medal or two at the London Games, which open tonight.

This time, however, there is a sense that other Singapore athletes are eager to join the medal hunt.

Joseph Schooling and Tao Li might swim the race of their lives, with an outside chance of grabbing a medal or two, too.

If this is what winning an Olympic medal does for Singapore - inspiring more to dedicate their lives to winning a medal - then the value of the Beijing medal is far greater than just that of an Olympic silver.

Still, this does not make it any easier for Singapore to win in London.

In fact, even if everything goes according to form, the pessimistic outlook is that this could be an empty harvest.

The women's paddlers received a fortuitous draw on Wednesday, eluding mighty China in the semi-finals and giving them a similar path towards a silver as in Beijing.

But they are fighting desperately for peak form, with Feng in an uncharacteristically long slump and Li way past her prime.

Tao has also struggled to return to her feisty best after a sudden coaching change last year.

Schooling, at age 16, is perhaps one for the future, despite his stellar year in the pool.

London Games chef de mission Jessie Phua said recently that she is optimistic that the athletes can, somehow, regain their best forms in the heat of the tough competition.

This drives home the razor- thin margin between success and failure that Singapore athletes have to negotiate at any Olympics - a one-off medal win does not guarantee another.

Still, the Beijing medal win has given the sports fraternity here the impetus and drive to better organise themselves in the quest for such success.

It is no surprise that table tennis and swimming have already established a system for gearing their athletes towards success at all levels.

But kudos to gymnastics and canoeing for making enough progress to be able to send their athletes to the Olympics for the first time.

Gymnast Lim Heem Wei and canoeist Geraldine Lee represent the heady optimism that more sports organisations here are on the right path in the chase for Olympic success.

Perhaps, this is the legacy of the 2008 silver: It brought home both the difficulty and the possibility of winning a medal.

This is why the paddlers and swimmers are talking about the peak form needed to win, instead of the desire to merely do their best and hope for the best.

Olympic success has become tangible and Singaporean athletes are no longer clutching at straws in their pursuit to be "faster, higher, stronger", as the Olympic motto goes.

It may never be easy, but it is unlikely to take another 48 years before Singapore wins another medal.

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