S'pore plays catch-up in global sports arena

S'pore plays catch-up in global sports arena
Singapore's Feng Tianwei beat Japan's Kasumi Ishikawa to take home the Olympic table tennis women's singles bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics on 1 August 2012.

Singapore's growing reputation as a venue for world-class sporting events grew exponentially last year, with not one but two high-profile events joining the prestigious Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.

The first was the one-off international football friendly between Japan and World Cup hosts Brazil at the National Stadium on Oct 14.

The second was the season-ending event of the Women's Tennis Association, the WTA Finals, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium from Oct 17 to 26.

Reinforcing this growing stature, the SEA Games will be held in June this year at the $1.33 billion Sports Hub, the crown jewel in the country's push to become part of the global sporting landscape.

But while international sport is paying increasing attention to this Little Red Dot, Singapore has had little significant cause to celebrate its own sporting prowess.

Yes, there have been a smattering of improbable victories and front-page moments since the start of the millennium, but this international success has been achieved largely in just three major sports - table tennis, swimming and sailing.

The women's table tennis team unexpectedly toppled China at the World Team Championships in 2010. This was book-ended by a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and two bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics.

Before that, the last time Singapore managed a medal was when weightlifter Tan Howe Liang clinched a silver at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Swimmer Joseph Schooling has likewise shown world-class calibre. In Glasgow last July, the 19-year-old was second in the 100m butterfly to claim Singapore's first swimming medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Three months later, he won three medals at the Asian Games in Incheon, highlighted by his victory in the 100m fly, which made him the country's first male swimming champion since Ang Peng Siong's 100m freestyle gold at the 1982 New Delhi Games.

Three teenagers also put Singapore on the world stage last year. Aloysius Yapp, 18, brought home a world title as the first Singaporean winner in the nine-ball pool category at the Under-19 World Junior Championships in Shanghai.

The other two were junior sailors Bernie Chin and Samantha Yom, both 15, who created history in Nanjing, China, when they became the first Singaporeans to win gold medals at the Youth Olympic Games.

In the past 12 months, Singapore has also had a world champion in silat (Sheik Farhan), captured a first shooting World Cup (Martina Lindsay Veloso) and celebrated its first men's singles Commonwealth Games badminton medallist (Derek Wong).

Another cause for celebration is the rise of Singapore as a world bowling force. The female keglers, seven of whom are ranked in the World Bowling Tour's top 20, are now regarded by many in the international fraternity as the main rivals of kingpins South Korea.

But all of this must be viewed in context.

For a nation of just 3.34 million citizens, such intermittent international success and the ability to produce a handful of world-class athletes is certainly commendable. However, the real challenge is not just to sustain this success, but to increase its occurrence.

Unlike the United States, Russia and China, which have had well-established systems of youth sports development in place for decades, Singapore - with a single dedicated sports school that opened in 2004 - resembles a little cog just beginning to turn.

Even at a regional level, there is an imbalance. A total of $80.77 million in annual government funding was set aside last year for the national sports associations (NSAs) and local athletes.

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