They champion a sports-crazy nation

They champion a sports-crazy nation
C. Kunalan, Paul Lim and Terry Pathmanathan.

Former sailing champion and Nominated Member of Parliament Dr Benedict Tan yesterday spoke about his worry that Singaporeans are increasingly shunning sport.

In a speech in Parliament, Tan, 47, lamented the trend among schools to only accept ready-made athletes, decreasing the number of available opportunities for youngsters to learn sports.

When contacted by The New Paper, champions of yesteryear spoke about how Singaporeans were crazy about sport at one time, only for the passion to erode as other interests and pursuits came in the way. They all agreed with Tan's sentiments.

Iconic sprinter C Kunalan said: "I think that it's true that interest in sports among the youth is dwindling. There are many factors at play here.

"In schools, there are certain criteria that decide whether a student can play sports for the school or not. It might even be a little elitist... because somehow only the best kids are selected to compete."

In his speech, Tan, who won an Asian Games gold in 1994, said: "Singaporeans are pragmatic - we are goal oriented and we monitor closely our key performance indicators. We pay close attention to what is tangible and measurable, or medals and grades in short.

"What we need to do now, is to pay more attention to high participation or mass participation, where the results and benefits are less tangible."

Former Singapore hockey player Paul Lim feels a school system centred around tangible results is unhealthy.

"The biggest issue is our culture here in Singapore. We are a pragmatic lot, and this isn't something new. Everyone is aware of this," he said. "Maybe that puts off participation among the young.

"And, the culture here is all about education. Yes, you can play, but young people are always told that they'd be better off studying."

Such a belief has never sat well with former Singapore football star and captain, Terry Pathmanathan. The 58-year-old believes that sport is of vital importance, in or out of school.

"Ultimately, you want kids to grow up with strong character. Sports is the best way of inculcating such values," he said.

"Sports and school go hand in hand. Results and trophies are temporary, but the values learnt will last a lifetime.

"So, be it competitive or recreational, there's a lot to be gained. It all boils down to how the people at the top look at it. When that is sorted out, then the less tangible rewards will be seen."

In the 1970s and '80s, Singaporeans could not get enough of sport, either playing or watching.

Pathmanathan recalled playing amateur games to capacity crowds at the old Jalan Besar Stadium, while Kunalan made his name with local athletics clubs in front of thousands at Farrer Park.

These days, many events struggle to draw even a 1,000 spectators.

Kunalan, 72, who held the 100m national record for 33 years and represented Singapore at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, does feel that progress is being made, though.

He said: "Many schemes have been put in place to promote sports participation, and plenty of schools these days have indoor sports halls and dedicated sporting facilities.

"It is not enough to have winners on the competitive stage. Having participants is much more important, and I think that some work has been done in order to facilitate that."

This article was first published on January 20, 2015.
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