Schooling has to prove NS deferment is right decision

Schooling has to prove NS deferment is right decision

If he so much as sneezes, it makes news.

This, of course, is a great exaggeration. But this little joke borrowed from a colleague of mine pretty much sums up the attention that now surrounds swimmer Joseph Schooling, who was last week granted deferment from national service until the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The NS issue has long been a bone of contention for many athletes and national sports associations, who have mentioned its disruptive impact on their training and sporting careers.

It is believed that Schooling, 18, is the first sportsman to be granted such a lengthy deferment that will allow him to pursue athletic excellence on the world stage.

The Government's decision was naturally hailed as a triumph for the sporting community.

However groundbreaking as the decision is, one must not assume that the floodgates to NS deferment for male national athletes are now open.

When queried in Parliament on Monday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen pointed out that competitions must be sufficiently high level and athletes concerned must be exceptional before deferment is granted.

This point that it should be only for athletes with exceptional potential was also noted by The Straits Times in a commentary last year, when it publicly stated its support for Schooling's case for deferment.

For the swimmer and his parents Colin and May, the outcome of their years of lobbying was certainly a coup, and a battle won.

But to claim it as a victory would be premature. Because their son's journey is only just beginning.

Like how power brings responsibility, the University of Texas-bound swimmer will now come under heavy scrutiny.

All eyes, from top government men to fellow athletes, will be trained on the teen.

With each passing competition, officials will question quietly if their decision is justified while other sportsmen will look at the 1.84m Schooling and ask if he is truly more deserving than them.

Pressure is a strange creature. Some shrivel under its weight while others ride upon it to reach greater heights.

Schooling is no stranger to this. He has tasted defeat, and perhaps even embarrassment, most notably at last year's London Olympics when a cap-and-goggles fiasco - his equipment were deemed unacceptable - saw him finish two seconds off his personal best in the 200m butterfly heats and cost him a place in the semi-finals.

But he has bounced back.

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