If you could have an Asian Games every month, Tao Li would be a great swimmer. If you could have lights and cameras at every practice, she'd be outstanding. Just don't bore her with the daily grind at some empty, forgotten pool. No, no, just put on a show and let her loose. This isn't a competitor, this is a performer.
Yesterday, as she's always done at this level, when the atmosphere turned thick with tension, she responded with a fine race. Singapore didn't have a silver in Incheon and now it does. No big deal. Nonchalance is who she is and putting on a display is what she does. And if it isn't gold like the last two Games, consider this: She's the only woman outside China and Japan to win silver so far in the pool.
Tao has always been a maverick and a talent in search of an audience. It's as if something ignites within her when people turn up, something primitive and pretty all at once. It's almost as if she takes for granted that the beast in her will show up on command. It has in Asia, but at world and Olympic level you need more than spirit.
But still we are drawn to her for she wears pressure like a cape some days and not every Singaporean athlete does. The pomp and anthems of a Games can stifle some competitors, but she lives for the gaze of the camera's lens. "I like pressure," she said four years ago at Guangzhou with the cool of someone who pours milk on it and chews it for breakfast.
"I enjoy the crowd," she said yesterday. And also the moment. All the "cheering" that goes on, on Facebook and for real, all the people saying "good luck" and "everyone looking at you", she loves it. Shy has never fit her well and she's beautifully clear: She enjoys the attention and she likes to perform in front of the world.
Sport is wonderfully representative of the human race, with its sloggers, academics, nutcases, cheats, geeks and also - and this is a pure compliment - its exhibitionists. This isn't just about etching a tattoo, or colouring hair, or painting a fingernail, this is just wanting us - the voyeurs - to watch what they do.
Exhibitionists want to be admired and examined. Even Roger Federer admitted part of the thrill of why he continues is because he gets to parade on centre courts. He doesn't play only for the sheer joy and art of tennis but also to show it to us. All of us.
And, in a smaller way, this is Tao. In an often bland Asian sporting world, with its personalities as dull as wallpaper and quotes built of cliches, she's fun. She has style and swagger and charisma and it's a gift, even if she hasn't always made best use of it.
Tao is a performer in search of her best self but has never quite found it. A talent who never seemed utterly convinced by the manic, vomit-inducing work ethic that makes Olympic champions. She's been very good without ever completely discovering if she had a shot at great. She's an entertaining jigsaw with a missing piece.
But she's never been boring, never exited an Asian Games without a medal, never been short of a compelling quote. So while we may ponder it, let's not get stuck on what she might have been. Let's just look at the two Asian Games golds, two silvers and a bronze and admire and applaud what she is.
This article was first published on September 23, 2014.
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