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Opp-ortunity missed

Publication Date : 09-08-2012

 

Two bronze medals and one national record.

After three years and spending S$4.1 million (US$3.30 million) on the Olympic Pathway Programme (OPP), this was the payback from Singapore's elite athletes at London 2012.

Simple math says that each medal won by the Republic's triumphant table tennis players cost the Government just over S$2 million under the programme.

The jury is out on whether the results have justified the cost, but some Singapore sports officials believe the OPP has lost some momentum.

Launched in 2009 as a successor to Project 0812 (an initiative to help prepare elite athletes for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics), the OPP identified 11 athletes over four sports that had the potential to win an Olympic medal this year.

A total of S$6.5 million was set aside but only S$4.1 million was spent till June this year, a spokesman for the Ministry of Community, Youth Development and Sports told The Straits Times.

In contrast, Britain invested 264 million pounds (US$413 million) to groom over 500 athletes for this Olympics. The projected cost of each medal they will win by the end of the Games is around 4.6 million pounds.

In Singapore's case, five of the chosen ones are from the double medal-winning women's table tennis team, two more are from badminton, three are from shooting and there is a lone swimmer.

They were given training support and funds, over and above whatever they were receiving from the Singapore Sports Council (SSC).

But, apart from the paddlers, none of those who made the cut for London came close to a podium place.

Even Tao Li, who was among the world's top five 100m butterfly swimmers at the 2008 Games, failed to make the final this time.

Team Singapore's chef de mission Jessie Phua is among those who feel the OPP has fallen short of its lofty goals.

"I honestly think the monitoring of the athletes can be so much better," she told The Straits Times.

"It should be more than just an annual review... We have to make sure that OPP athletes should loom very large on the radar."

Tao's training woes, she added, was a case in point.

The Republic's top swimmer changed her personal coach three times in the last four years, and the lack of continuity hampered her progress in London.

Tao clocked a national record in the women's 100m backstroke in London, but it was her dismal performance in her pet event, the 100m fly, which disappointed observers.

So, too, were the results posted by women's doubles shuttlers Shinta Mulia Sari and Yao Lei. The world No. 13 Singaporeans lost all three of their preliminary round games, beaten by two higher-ranked pairs from Japan and Chinese Taipei, and an Indian duo whom they had never lost to before.

Jasmine Ser, the women's 10m air rifle shooter who made the final of a World Cup event in May, did not qualify directly for London and finished outside the top 20.

"We probably were expecting a little bit more," said Nominated MP Nicholas Fang, himself a former national fencer. "I think we were losing sight that systems within NSAs (national sports associations) need to be robust and targeted towards Olympic results."

The OPP comprises various sub-committees looking after selection, training, sports science and sports medicine. The programme's steering committee is chaired by Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck.

He, too, conceded that some of the athletes under the programme had underwhelmed.

"For some, we'll have expected them to do better," he said. "But the important thing is that they were given a chance and provided the support."

According to Teo, regular monitoring of athletes is done through reports submitted by their respective coaches and officials, though he did not specify how often this was done.

"Monitoring is one thing," he added. "But we've empowered the (NSA) officials because they know their sport best. In the end, it's also up to the athletes and how hard they work."

Change is just round the corner. After the Games, the OPP will be replaced by the new Singapore Sports Institute (SSI), which will devise a new support structure for potential Olympic medallists.

Among the possible changes: A tiered system whereby top, mature athletes get the larger share of funds, while giving some cash to younger ones with untapped potential.

Said SSC chief executive Lim Teck Yin: "We've learnt some lessons about how the programme is managed.

"I think we also recognise that it's not about one or two (Olympic four-year) cycles. And that's what SSI is now plotting - how to have a complete pipeline from a junior athlete to a senior athlete."

Fang suggests an even more radical change: shifting the focus away from the athlete to the wider training and support structure within each sport.

"Instead of funding an individual, we can focus on the systems so that broader support can be given to more athletes," he said.

"This also reduces the pressure on individual athletes to perform."

As Singapore National Olympic Council vice-president Low Teo Ping put it: "It's not that we don't have the resources. We do. It's about how we use them."

Selection is another poser.

Pistol shooters Nigel Lim and Poh Lip Meng were selected for the OPP last year based on their Commonwealth Games successes. But they failed to even qualify for London.

Yet, top performers like Colin Cheng, who finished 15th in the Laser Standard class to post the best Olympic result by a Singapore sailor, was overlooked by the OPP.

The national men's table tennis squad were also missing. In London, they reached the Olympics' top eight for the first time.

"I hope that similar support will be given to all those that can make it to the Olympics," said Singapore's table tennis chief Lee Bee Wah.

"I would think that the moment they qualify, we should give them extra help."

As Singapore celebrates its two-medal catch from London, the sobering reality is that the road to Olympic excellence in 2016 and beyond still needs work.

"We have many things to learn from countries who have an intensive programme to prepare athletes," said Acting Minister for Community, Youth Development and Sports Chan Chun Sing.

"They already have their eye on the 2016 Olympics...these are long-terms plans they have in place and these are what we can learn."

 

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