Home News Featured News What else can Joseph Schooling now do for Singapore?

What else can Joseph Schooling now do for Singapore?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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What shall we do with Joseph Schooling, our only Olympic gold medallist ? Or, maybe more pertinently, where does Schooling, 26, see himself in the years and decades ahead? These are fair questions because we seemed to have ignored the value of our past Olympic heroes. Don’t make the same mistake with the superboy from Marine Parade.

Singapore has traditionally been strong in water sports. The water polo boys dominated the SEA Games for a long time. They won 27 gold medals from 1965 to 2019. They even captured the Asian Games gold in 1954, beating the formidable world-class Japanese team.

And three swimmers have brought this island to the world stage of individual swimming.

Neo Chwee Kok (1931-1987) was a world-class swimmer. He won four gold medals in 1951 at the inaugural Asian Games in New Delhi and remained the only sportsman or woman to have garnered that many golds at that level. Incredible. Already one of the world’s fastest 100 metres freestyle swimmers then, he competed in the 1951 Helsinki Olympics where nerves and the cold weather did not favour him. But he was up there and was able to give John Henricks, an eventual 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a close shave in a 1954 event.

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Likewise, Ang Peng Siong had always been up there. He collected his fair share of golds for Singapore at various Asian Games in his illustrious swimming career. In both the 50 metres and 100 metres freestyle sprints, Ang was an Asian kingpin. His national record of 22.69 sec for the 50 metres freestyle stood for 32 years until Joseph Schooling bettered it with his 22.47 sec in 2015. Ang was no pushover at world level in the 100 metres freestyle either. He missed getting into the finals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but won the B finals, putting him in the company of the best freestylists.

What happened to the two in their later years?

As a sports icon, Ang has carved out a respectable place in the community in after-competition life. He founded the Aquatic Performance Swim School. He had short stints as national swimming coach from 2009 to 2012 and for national swim teams taking part in various games intermittently. He currently sits on the board of the Chiam See Tong Foundation which offers sports scholarships.

Still, his has been a could-have-been-better story. He has spoken about lost opportunities in a frank and instructive interview he gave Mothership in 2019.

He said he made a mistake. He should have finished his national service first and then plunged into his quest for gold after that, instead of asking and getting an inadequate six-month deferment for the Seoul Olympics. His fellow competitors from other countries had superior support and more time. He also spoke about the lack of a sporting culture which, in turn, means support and community recognition for local sporting talent should be overwhelming and not underwhelming and qualified.

“We got good universities that produce good doctors, good lawyers for the mainframe of the economy,” Mothership quoted him as saying. “But if you want to grow the sports industry, you need people who are specialised in that too.”

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This brings us to the case of Neo Chwee Kok.

Frankly, I place Neo more or less in the category of weightlifter Tan Howe Liang, our solitary Olympic medallist before Lee Bee Wah’s Chinese table-tennis imports captured the women’s team silver at the Beijing Olympics. Tan, who is 88 now, won the silver medal in weightlifting’s lightweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympics but never did get the recognition and reward he deserved, for various reasons. He went through the standard of becoming national coach for his sport but has been living a quiet existence with the remarkable glory he brought to the community shamefully not known to many younger Singaporeans.

Neo similarly disappeared from the public eye and became a club coach. If you ask anyone aged below 60, he would likely never heard of this swimming legend.

Of course, the achievements of Neo and Tan were before Singapore became independent and embarked on its nation-building phase. Neo’s were practically in the colonial years. Tan’s Olympian feat was in the first year of self-government. Wrong timing, perhaps.

But it is never too late to correct a collective national neglect which is retarding effort to convince Singaporeans that our sports heroes should be properly appreciated and honoured. As I have said before, we do not need to do much. Just name some of the side lanes around the SportsHub after them, as Sydney had with its icons at its Olympics Stadium.

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And what about Joseph Schooling?

He is only 26 but, in swimming vocabulary, he is already 26. Every year counts. He did not go beyond the heats in the 100 metres butterfly in Tokyo which was eventually won by Caeleb Dressel of the US in the blistering world record time of 49.45 secs. The writing had been on the wall. The US swimmer had beaten Schooling in the same event at the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (inter-college) championships in 2016, a year after Rio. Schooling had been champion for two years before that.

Schooling ends his Tokyo with no lost glory. Not at all. Maybe a couple of SEA Games and Asian Games golds and silvers more? But, in the Olympic pool, there is nothing more for him to prove.

All Singaporeans now look for him to do more for sports than the lacklustre bureaucrats, pretenders and bean counters in charge of local sports. Joseph Schooling should understand perfectly what it takes to produce sports champions or to inspire the young. He can be the new Edward Barker or the local Sebastian Coe. Does not matter either way.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media

Send in your scoops to news@theindependent.sg 

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