Better organised: Singapore’s sports chiefs reveal how city overtook Hong Kong – and how they're planning for more Olympic glory
The Lion City also already have Formula One, the English Premier League’s Asia Trophy, the flagship Women’s Tennis Association Finals as well as a brand new stadium to host a growing list of events
Hong Kong’s medal-less Olympics was disappointing, but understandable, even if Sarah Lee Wai-sze was desperately unlucky.
We’ve only ever won three medals and there were plenty of highlights from a young squad and there is optimism for Tokyo 2020.
Except for one thing: Singapore won a gold.
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Hong Kong has always had bragging rights over our rivals thanks to Lee Lai-shan 20 years ago.
Singapore got on the board first, with a weightlifting medal in 1960, but we had the gold.
And their next medals – silver and two bronzes in table tennis in 2008 and 2012 – we could try to dismiss by telling ourselves they were won by China-born imports.
But Joseph Schooling’s sensational 100 metres butterfly win in the pool, setting a new Olympic Games record and beating Michael Phelps, has the Lion City “galvanised”, say their sports chiefs.
Schooling is only 21, so there’s the worrying prospect that he could be racking up Singapore gold for several Games to come.
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Singapore has also stolen a march on Hong Kong in infrastructure and events. They have planned, built and opened a magnificent 35-hectare Sports Hub while we have been talking about doing so for almost 10 years, even if Sports Commissioner Yeung Tak-keung assured me in Rio de Janeiro the other day that progress is being made.
They have had one of the highlights of the Formula One calendar since 2008. The English Premier League’s Asia Trophy, a preseason event hugely popular with Hong Kong fans, went to the Sports Hub last time and who knows if we’ll get it back.
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They even muscled in our sacrosanct turf by hosting a World Rugby Sevens Series event this year.
The flagship Women’s Tennis Association Finals is held at the hub too, plus other top events in badminton, volleyball, swimming and some fixtures of the Sunwolves, the first Asian team in Super Rugby.
Now they’re plotting to land an Asian or Commonwealth Games, and hope to bank on the ‘Schooling effect’ by getting a whole new generation of kids into sport.
At the Olympic Park a few days ago officials were patting themselves on the back – and quite rightly too – in front of the Singapore press.
The Post muscled in to try to get an explanation as to how they’ve overtaken Hong Kong, and what we can do to catch up.
“I think probably we are a little bit more organised, I cannot compare ourselves with Hong Kong,” said Low Teo Ping, president of the Singapore Rugby Union and the team’s chef de mission in Rio.
“I sit on the Sports Singapore board and the Singapore National Olympic Council. In Singapore we are much more inter-agency collaborative, that has both the government plus also the NGOs [non-governmental organisation] plus various NSAs [national sporting associations] that really pull together and want to do a few things for Singapore on the international stage.”
The city-state of course has a government that can pass laws and decrees without opposition, while our officials can’t pass water without being filibustered.
Low said the Sports Hub, opened in 2015, had taken Singapore to a new level.
“It is not just a facility based on a real estate play,” he said. “We have the aquatics centre housed in it where the Singapore Swimming Association is housed with its own pool, warm-up pools and all the other facilities that go with it. Likewise, some of the other NSAs are housed there.
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“I think it’s a collaboration of many parts which we’ve been able to pull together with a national agenda that probably requires a certain amount of fine-tuning over time.
"We go through each Olympics and each major games like the Asian Games, to fine tune and say, ‘What is it we want to do in terms of the national agenda?’”
He warned Hong Kong Sevens organisers – and myself after I wrote a column perceived by some as being snide about the Singapore Sevens – that it won’t be content to play second fiddle.
“The Singapore Sevens, we surprised a lot of parties with our first time doing it. It was like doomsday when it was announced it would be [directly] after Hong Kong but the market is big enough, it’s very much driven by commercial terms, it’s driven by the fact we’ve got a wonderful stadium and know how to use it – and next year you better be there, you’ll be surprised at what we going to pull together.”
What a day! The victory parade around Singapore was amazing. I can't thank everyone enough that came out to show their support. Go Singapore! ️ P.S. Sorry for causing 2 accidents haha i hope you guys are okay :) : @alvinttt1971
A photo posted by Joseph Schooling (@josephschooling) on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:51am PDT
Singapore brought 25 athletes to Rio compared to Hong Kong’s 38. Other highlights were their table tennis team reaching semi-finals again, though they lost the bronze medal match to Japan, and 19-year-old swimmer Quah Zheng Wen reaching two semi-finals.
Bob Gambardella, formerly of the US Olympic Committee (USOC), is the chief of the Singapore Sports Institute and was planning in-depth analysis to build on Schooling’s success.
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“We are going to conduct a greenhouse discovery campaign with Deloitte to discover what are things that work well, what didn’t work well and put that data together,” he said.
“Where I come from at the USOC we did similar surveys. When we go to a Games we learn, reflect, then how do we build upon the organisation for next time and I think that’s very powerful.”
A National Youth Sports Institute has recently been established to identify and nurture talent as early as possible – “the pipeline is the lifeline,” Gambardella said.
“We can’t really on social Darwinism, we’ve got to have an aggressive programme that identifies athletes at a certain age to get them to this level.”
Singapore have hosted several multi-sport events in recent years – the Asian Youth Games in 2009, the inaugural Youth Olympics in 2010 and the Southeast Asian Games at the hub in 2015.
The officials stopped short of outright confirming an upcoming bid for the Asian or Commonwealth Games, but certainly seemed keen.
“The SEA Games had an effect, I call it an intoxication,” said Low. “Then you add the euphoria we saw last week with the Joseph Schooling effect. It really has created something we ought to take advantage of.
“It’s not short euphoria that is going to disappear – I think we’re now on the brink of take-off.”
Let’s just hope Hong Kong is not left stalled on the launchpad.