Game on for S'pore to catch sports fever

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Mr Lawrence Wong taking a wefie with Team Singapore athletes.

SPORT, not shopping, took centre stage along Orchard Road last Saturday as the mall precinct became a sea of red, filled with Team Singapore athletes, volunteers and well-wishers showcasing their support ahead of the South-east Asia (SEA) Games.

Singapore is hosting the biennial SEA Games - the region's biggest multi-sport meeting, featuring 402 events across 36 sports - from June 5 to 16.

More than 7,000 athletes and officials from 11 South-east Asian nations are expected to be here. What's more, it is taking place as Singapore marks 50 years of independence.

So, it's no wonder those involved with the Games turned out in force in the Team Singapore colours of red to stir up support, and had fun proudly showing off their skills - including playing football, rugby, basketball and badminton in the middle of Orchard Road.

And yet, during last Saturday's mass rally in town, members of the public whom The Straits Times spoke to were not that fired up about the big event, with many there to soak up Pedestrian Night rather than the 90-day countdown to the Games.

And they, by and large, had the same feelings towards the Games: We know the event is coming. But we don't really know who our athletes are.

Yes, it's sad but true.

Even though the Team Singapore contingent is expected to be one of the largest-ever fielded, its athletes remain mostly unknown to the public, apart from a high-profile handful such as swimmer Joseph Schooling, crowned The Straits Times Athlete of the Year last week, and rising football star Irfan Fandi, son of local football icon Fandi Ahmad.

This is despite the fact that the Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee (Singsoc) has been hard at work since last year, trying to sell the return of an event that was last hosted here in 1993 to the nation.

Of the $324.5 million budget, $6.8 million has been allocated to outreach efforts.

A target of 50 gold medals which would match Singapore's best tally - achieved way back in that year as host - has been bandied around.

High as that target might seem, it pales in comparison to the lofty goal set by Singsoc for this 28th Games - which is to set the foundation of a sporting culture which future generations can build on.

Going by the responses on Saturday night, it remains a work in progress to stir an economically ultra-competitive and pragmatic country that is only just waking to the notion of embracing its more physical side - via the sports factor.

In fact, 1993 was something of a zenith in this regard.

A year later, Singapore withdrew from football's Malaysia Cup, ending an association with a competition that united the nation as families sat glued to their television screens and strangers cheered together in the streets.

This meant that a whole generation for whom sports was part of the national psyche was lost, as computers, the Internet and then social media vied for their attention.

"There are so many distractions now and people's attention span continues to shorten," said Nominated MP Benedict Tan, a former national sailor who earlier this year lamented in Parliament about the worrying state of the country's sports culture.

"That spark and love of sports - it has gone missing."

Apart from the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, Singapore has had little else to feel passionate about on the sporting front for more than two decades.

Yes, the world's best Formula One drivers and top female tennis and golf stars may make regular pitstops here. There are also the occasional visits by top footballers. But the roar quietens to a whimper when Singaporeans are presented with the triumphs and troughs of their own local football, rugby, basketball and hockey leagues - and this is where more effort is required to fire up more support.

It is commendable that Singsoc has reached out to enlist a bumper crop of volunteers this year - 17,000 of them.

Likewise, the Orchard Road publicity will go a long way, along with sports carnivals in schools and programmes in the heartlands.

But ultimately, it is the athletes themselves who are the face, heart and soul of the Games. Theirs are the stories that will spark water-cooler debates among citizens, sports fans or not.

Over the years, there have certainly been achievements to celebrate - with 534 SEA Games golds, the Republic ranks a commendable sixth among 11 South-east Asian nations in the all-time medal tally.

Success has also been emulated at the Olympics, Commonwealth and Asian Games. World champions have been crowned in sailing, bowling, billiards and silat, among other sports.

Yet in 1973, when Singapore first hosted the South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games - as the SEA Games was known then - then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in opening the National Stadium, had a different focus, urging that sport be embraced for its health benefits.

He said: "We live an artificial city life. Too many people take the lift, briefly amble to a bus stop and take another lift to work. Many do not make daily exercise a habit. Sports can help. This stadium should be used to encourage, not just watching games but, after watching, to engage in sports and athletics."

Indeed, an enduring legacy of this year's SEA Games would be to drive the Government's realisation of Vision 2030, a path towards an active and healthy lifestyle for all.

The signs are promising, as Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong highlighted in Parliament in January.

The latest National Sports Participation Survey showed more than 60 per cent of Singaporeans now engage in sports at least once a week, up from the 2011 figures of 42 per cent.

In March last year, the Government pledged $1.5 billion as part of its Sports Facilities Master Plan to strengthen the sporting landscape, which aims to provide Singaporeans with a venue to play and exercise within 10 minutes of their home by 2030.

As for the SEA Games, the Singapore National Olympic Council is prepared to send its largest team of athletes, while Singsoc aims to have them compete during weekday evenings and weekends, to ensure that Singaporeans get a chance to see their local stars.

They are telling us: Come out. Cheer loudly. Watch them.

For nothing inspires and motivates a nation - sports fan and couch potato alike - quite like seeing one of your own succeed, especially on home ground.

This article was first published on March 12, 2015.
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