True champions before we dared dream of Olympic glory

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By: Howard Lee

Theresa Goh shook my hand with a vice-like grip. Underneath that big smile, you will see an athlete you don’t want to mess with.

Back then, she and buddy Yip Pin Xiu attended almost every event we organised leading up to London 2012. In spite of their training, they took time out to be real ambassadors of the sport they love and the country they represent.

When together, you hear them chatting about all sorts of things, but mostly it was about qualifying times, injuries, training, event categories, medal hopes. They spoke as if they have been training together all their lives, if not known each other all their lives. They were true athletes, and the nation only got to see them at their best when Theresa clinched a bronze at Rio 2016, after Pin Xiu secured a gold at the same.

The truth is, they have been at it for ages, far longer than most of our Olympic athletes. They braved not just their own disabilities, but their own doubts. We hardly took notice, but they kept on going in a sport that became very much a part of their lives.

In essence, they were professionals and our champions, not because they could bring home gold, but because they have true grit.

That is what we have been missing in our quest to be a sporting nation. For too long, we have focused on the results. We grant National Service deferment based on qualifying criteria, never thinking that deferment might actually help them get to the qualifiers faster and with less pain. We give them the best in coaching and facilities, but expect them to return some of their earnings. We award out athletes only when they perform, rather than give them the assurance to take the leap into the abyss.

Even so, that award is skewed. Five more golds would not bring these two Paralympic champions any much more financial gain compared to their Olympic counterparts with one. Sponsors continue to see the Olympics a cut above the Paralympics, believing in prestige and return of investment more than the value of our athletes.

And yet, they stood on the world stage for us, overcame all odds and did us proud. At this point, Singapore should be humbled, not bask in their glory.

Because you can count on Theresa and Pin Xiu, if they are able to quality, to be back again four years later, wearing our colours and doing us proud. And they will do so not because they have a shot at a medal, but because they still have that same true grit.

We cannot count on our system, however, to do them the justice they truly deserve.