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Call to be more athlete-centric

The Straits Times by MUHAMMAD SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ

Between 1965 and 1979, Singapore swept 145 track and field medals at eight editions of the SEA Games, 33 of them gold. Since then, the Republic's athletes have won 118 in 19 editions of the biennial Games, with only 26 golds.

While he notes increased competition is a factor - in 1975 only four nations participated in the Games, compared to 11 last year - local athletics coach Steven Quek says the lack of good results at regional level is cause for concern.

TACKLING ATTRITION

Quek, who has been coaching distance runners since 1986, singled out attrition as the biggest problem facing local track and field.

"We need continuity," said the 50-year-old, who was one of several members of the track and field fraternity The Straits Times spoke to about the problems in the sport.

"In track and field, athletes peak in their late 20s or even early 30s. We've seen how athletes who keep going till this age - Soh Rui Yong, Michelle Sng, the relay squad - are able to reach higher standards.

"But if we don't keep them going, we get them competing when they are in (tertiary institutions), which is normally too young to be at their best."

Soh, 27, has won back-to-back SEA Games marathon golds, while high jumper Sng, 31, came out of retirement to win the Games gold last year in Kuala Lumpur.

The men's 4x100m team lowered the national record five times between 2007 and 2015, after the sprinters put their education and career plans on hold to train full-time for six months in 2013, when most were in their mid-to-late 20s.

Quek contrasted these examples with how hurdler Jannah Wong, who set the national 100m hurdles mark in 2014 as an 18-year-old, and thrower Wan Lay Chi, who frequently won medals at the Asian and Asean junior levels, called time on their careers prematurely.

NO BACK-DOOR ENTRY

With due respect, it's about sports excellence. The system of allowing participation by wild card, even at SEA Games level, is watering down the standard.

U.K. SHYAM, former sprinter and 100m record holder.

BETTER BACKING

I've seen how things work in Thailand and Malaysia and it seems the athletes are very well-supported from the time they are in the sports schools, all the way until they are senior national athletes.

MICHELLE SNG, high jumper and SEA Games champion.

Said Sng: "There are many reasons. Some get injured. For others, life gets in the way. You finish school, the guys go for National Service, get married, and you need to think about your career and families."

In 2016, national sports agency Sport Singapore launched the ActiveSG athletics academy, which caters to athletes up to age 24.

It is hoped the academy's programmes, which are detailed and well structured, provide a clear pathway for athletes to not only improve their skills, but also remain in the sport for the long term. The grassroots effort also aims to increase participation and broaden the talent pool.

TIGHTER BENCHMARKS

According to former sprinter U.K. Shyam, another reason for below-par performances at the senior level is the lowering of the bar for athletes to qualify for regional or international meets.

"With due respect, it's about sports excellence," said the 42-year-old, who set the 100m record of 10.37sec in 2001 and hung up his spikes four years later.

"The system of allowing participation by wild card (not meeting qualifying benchmarks), even at SEA Games level, is watering down the standard.

"You look at swimming - they have no such thing as a wild card. That's one of the reasons it has reached a certain level today.

"To think that during my time, our relay team were 0.16sec away from the bronze-medal mark and yet they didn't let us go to the 1999 SEA Games."

At last year's SEA Games, the 4x400m team raced despite not posting a qualifying time ahead of the trip. They finished last out of five nations.

The 4x100m quartet, meanwhile, went despite posting only a 40.5sec effort, which was way off the bronze-medal mark of 39.32sec. They finished second last out of seven nations.

FOREIGN COACHES: VALUE FOR MONEY?

Marathoner Soh believes the SA has "allocated its resources poorly" by bringing in big-money coaches in recent years.

Since the early 1990s, SA has hired foreign coaches - Qi Zutan from China, Kerry Hill from New Zealand, Rainer Paul, Hans-Peter Thumm, Ralph Mouchbahani and Volker Herrmann from Germany - to take the sport to the next level by winning medals consistently at the Asean and Asian levels. None has succeeded.

Singapore Athletics currently has Herrmann, who formerly led the Bavarian state sprint team, as its technical director. The 33-year-old was appointed in April last year on a two-year contract, reportedly on a $14,000-a-month salary.

Insisting he bore no personal grudge against Herrmann, Soh said: "Too often, we hire a foreigner from Europe, pay him a five-figure sum a month, and expect him to perform miracles when he has no idea what the Singapore context or setting is.

"Just because a structure works in Europe doesn't mean it will work here. The eco-system is different.

"Universities or jobs may allow more flexibility in Europe but we haven't quite reached that level of understanding in Singapore yet."

Soh, who studied and trained in Oregon from 2013 to 2015, suggested SA would be better off sending Singaporean coaches on development courses overseas to try and develop a system that can work back home.

Sng believes a more comprehensive coaching set-up - with the athlete at the heart of plans - is required. "I've seen how things work in Thailand and Malaysia and it seems the athletes are very well-supported from the time they are in the sports schools, all the way until they are senior national athletes," she said.

"There is a lot of communication between the parties involved, and all you need to do as an athlete is focus on your training.

"Ideally, we would have a national training centre helmed by a head coach and a few coaches for different disciplines, and athletes have the option to go there to train, or stick to their own coaches."

MONETARY AND OTHER SUPPORT

While SA has a carding system for allowances, first implemented in 2010, the system ceased indefinitely from last year.

From 2013, top athletes, with potential to win medals at Asean and Asian competitions, have also received funding through SportSG's Sports Excellence (Spex) Scholarship programme.

Sng added that she has been fortunate to have good sponsors, among them apparel giant adidas, but added that many other athletes struggle with funding their training needs.

Former sprinter Amirudin Jamal concurred: "There is not much to look forward to, especially if you don't break into the national team.

"Even then, it's not as though you win cash if you win the 100m at the Singapore Open. At the end of the day, you still need to pay the bills.

"If you don't get something in return, you end up doing it almost as a hobby. And if that's the case, you may not put in as much effort because it's not your No. 1 priority - your job is - and you won't churn out the quality you want."

Shyam also called for more support for student-athletes at the tertiary level.

He said: "Until now... the local system doesn't cater for student-athletes in university, for example.

"There is no formal policy when it comes to juggling your exams and competing for the country. You have to fend for yourself."

ATHLETES TAKING THE INITIATIVE TOO

Sng took the initiative to set up a group, called "Singapore High Jump", in late 2016 because she felt the high jump community was "on the sidelines".

The group now has a database of over 150 local jumpers, from children as young as nine to Masters (over 40 years old) level, and maintains a blog and newsletter to keep its members updated on upcoming meets and qualifying events.

"It's no secret things don't run very smoothly in the SA, but instead of sitting back and complaining that the sport's not growing, we decided to do something," said Sng.

Asked if SA should be the one doing everything her Singapore High Jump group is, she replied: "What I believe is that whoever is involved in the sport, wants it to be better. But different people have different opinions on how to get things done. What they need is unity in terms of ideas and plans going forward."

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