Asian Games: Tuned in, turned on and let loose

SINGAPORE - In the bowels of the Munhak Park Tae-hwan Aquatics Centre, in a corner surrounded by massage tables, sat a swimmer, seemingly out of place.

It was a facility that bore his name, but South Korea's swimming superstar was huddled in a room annexed by the Singapore team - presumably hiding.

Park won six medals, celebrated his 25th birthday on swimming's final day of competition at this Asian Games, but felt it necessary to apologise to his country.

"I don't feel good to have disappointed (people)… I think I faltered mentally," he said.

"After all, it is happening in a venue named after me."

Park couldn't tune out the pressure, he couldn't turn on the same magic that saw him strike gold at the last two Asiads, as well as the 2008 Olympics - and hiding in that room, he couldn't let loose.

In Incheon, it seemed that all that went wrong for Park - the hosts' biggest sporting icon going in the Games - was exactly what Singapore will celebrate, after the 223-strong contingent returned home with five golds, six silvers and 13 bronze medals.

Candid

Speaking candidly after securing gold in sailing's open match racing, Team Red Dot skipper Maximilian Soh confessed that he was worried going into the final.

The Singapore team had lost only once in 19 previous outings in Incheon, but they felt they would stumble against the hosts and fail to live up to their pre-Games ranking as No. 1 in Asia.

But Soh and his crew turned it on, delivering gold in the waters west of Incheon city, as did Joseph Schooling in the pool, in the 100m butterfly.

It takes grit to stand tall even when weighed down by the burden of expectation, but Schooling sliced through water in 51.76 seconds, with 32 barren years worth of it on his back.

He became the first Singaporean man since Ang Peng Siong in 1982 to win an Asian Games gold.

If Schooling coolly turned it on, Tao Li pulled off the same, with swag.

Her silver (50m butterfly) and bronze (100m fly) were as good a response as any to those who said the 24-year-old was past it.

And then there were those who had to dig deep.

Afflicted by one issue or another, they found something special.

There were many who tuned out the pressure, built a wall to keep negativity at bay - and rose to the occasion.

After struggling in the first few days, the Republic's bowling women came good, winning team gold.

Out on the lanes, the normally demure Jazreel Tan no longer wore her puss-in-boots look.

Her eyes were all leather and no lace - Catwoman.

There was no more smile on the face of football's goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, on the pitch he was commander in chief, bellowing from between the sticks to his young troops who rallied around, and stood up to be counted.

The team surprised all back home in their 3-3 draw with Oman and 2-1 win over Palestine.

But it was not all high-fives and back slaps for Team Singapore at the just concluded Asian Games.

At the Asiad Main Stadium, we were reminded just how much work has to be done in track and field.

Gone are the days where the likes of C Kunalan and Chee Swee Lee could mix it up with the best on the continent.

Besides a commendable showing in the 4x100m men's relay, Singapore hardly had a presence.

Represented in South Korea by youngsters we hope can blossom, the athletes must show they are making strides at next June's South-east Asia Games on home soil, to suggest there is hope for eventual success again at the continental level.

It isn't often that a medal win is listed as one of the low points of a sports campaign, but in that, the bronze in sepak takraw doubles has perhaps made history.

It could also be the first time a team have won a medal without even making it to the knockout stages of the competition.

While it is no fault of the athletes, the decision to award the medal to Singapore after Laos' failure to show up in the semi-finals was surely a misguided one.

And, of course, there is the incident involving swimmers Schooling, Roanne Ho and Teo Zhen Ren.

Lesson

Their night out after the end of the swimming programme has unfortunately become one of the major talking points of the Games for Singapore.

There is a lesson for the three athletes, and all of us.

They need to inform officials of their whereabouts because of issues like safety and doping control.

The incident also shows that athletes, however brilliant in the arena, are just like the rest of us. That after being tightly wound up for months on end, and delivering their best, they need to let loose.

They are not demi-gods or machines, and should be bound by more mature guidelines and clear procedures.

A pretty pertinent lesson, considering that next year, Singapore will open its doors to the region weeks before its 50th birthday.

Our athletes may not have arenas named after them, but to compete in front of your own heaps that much more pressure on their shoulders.

Come June, we won't want them hiding in a corner deep in the bowels of the Singapore Sports Hub.

shamiro@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on October 6, 2014.
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