Game on for S'pore to catch sports fever

Game on for S'pore to catch sports fever
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Mr Lawrence Wong taking a wefie with Team Singapore athletes.

SPORT, not shopping, took centre stage along Orchard Road last Saturday as the mall precinct became a sea of red, filled with Team Singapore athletes, volunteers and well-wishers showcasing their support ahead of the South-east Asia (SEA) Games.

Singapore is hosting the biennial SEA Games - the region's biggest multi-sport meeting, featuring 402 events across 36 sports - from June 5 to 16.

More than 7,000 athletes and officials from 11 South-east Asian nations are expected to be here. What's more, it is taking place as Singapore marks 50 years of independence.

So, it's no wonder those involved with the Games turned out in force in the Team Singapore colours of red to stir up support, and had fun proudly showing off their skills - including playing football, rugby, basketball and badminton in the middle of Orchard Road.

And yet, during last Saturday's mass rally in town, members of the public whom The Straits Times spoke to were not that fired up about the big event, with many there to soak up Pedestrian Night rather than the 90-day countdown to the Games.

And they, by and large, had the same feelings towards the Games: We know the event is coming. But we don't really know who our athletes are.

Yes, it's sad but true.

Even though the Team Singapore contingent is expected to be one of the largest-ever fielded, its athletes remain mostly unknown to the public, apart from a high-profile handful such as swimmer Joseph Schooling, crowned The Straits Times Athlete of the Year last week, and rising football star Irfan Fandi, son of local football icon Fandi Ahmad.

This is despite the fact that the Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee (Singsoc) has been hard at work since last year, trying to sell the return of an event that was last hosted here in 1993 to the nation.

Of the $324.5 million budget, $6.8 million has been allocated to outreach efforts.

A target of 50 gold medals which would match Singapore's best tally - achieved way back in that year as host - has been bandied around.

High as that target might seem, it pales in comparison to the lofty goal set by Singsoc for this 28th Games - which is to set the foundation of a sporting culture which future generations can build on.

Going by the responses on Saturday night, it remains a work in progress to stir an economically ultra-competitive and pragmatic country that is only just waking to the notion of embracing its more physical side - via the sports factor.

In fact, 1993 was something of a zenith in this regard.

A year later, Singapore withdrew from football's Malaysia Cup, ending an association with a competition that united the nation as families sat glued to their television screens and strangers cheered together in the streets.

This meant that a whole generation for whom sports was part of the national psyche was lost, as computers, the Internet and then social media vied for their attention.

"There are so many distractions now and people's attention span continues to shorten," said Nominated MP Benedict Tan, a former national sailor who earlier this year lamented in Parliament about the worrying state of the country's sports culture.

"That spark and love of sports - it has gone missing."

Apart from the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, Singapore has had little else to feel passionate about on the sporting front for more than two decades.

Yes, the world's best Formula One drivers and top female tennis and golf stars may make regular pitstops here. There are also the occasional visits by top footballers.

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