S’pore: Youth games expose Olympic-sized cracks

Stanislaus Jude Chan

Just a month after the buzz from the vuvuzelas ended at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Singapore is busy preparing to host the next major event in the world sports calendar the Youth Olympic Games. But few seem to know, or care, about the inaugural youth version of the venerable Olympic Games.

An online survey  by state-controlled media Channel News Asia  found that some 88 percent of 6,430 respondent said they were ”not interested at all” to watch any of the action at the International Olympic Committee  event for athletes between 14 and 18 years old.  

”It’s obvious that the Singapore government knows very little about what the sports world wants, and even less about its marketing,” says opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. ”The public wants to watch top athletes in their prime in action, not when they are still in the process of getting there.”  

The games are a ”a waste of time”, says Malcolm Hoe, a 26-year-old undergraduate. ”I’d rather stay at home and watch the English Premier League on television.” 

Some 5,000 athletes and officials from more than 200 countries are expected in this city-state of 5 million people for the Games.  

”The Singapore Government is spending all this money on an experimental event that has turned out to be one that few care about,” says Chee. ”In contrast we spend about 100 million dollars (74.2 million U.S. dollars) on the needy in Singapore.”  

The initial 75 million U.S. dollar budget for the Youth Olympic Games  one of the reasons Singapore held the edge over Moscow in the race to host them has been blown out of the water. The organising committee announced in July that projected government spending for the 13-day Games will now be approximately 287 million U.S. dollars.

Niam Chiang Meng, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), admitted to being ”a bit naive with our initial estimates”.  

With the MCYS also in charge of welfare and social schemes, critics like Leong Sze Hian question if the government ”could have spent the money to help Singapore’s pathetic  almost non-existent  social welfare system” instead.  

”Only 3,000 people are on the Public Assistance scheme, which pays a paltry 360 dollars (267 U.S. dollars) a month,” says Leong, past president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals. It was ”last disclosed in Parliament that, in a year, 50 percent of applicants were rejected,” he adds.  

”As to how much of the benefits (reaped from the Youth Olympic Games) will trickle down to citizens, we don’t know because whatever cost-benefit analysis, if one was done, is not made public,” says Leong.

Youth Olympic Games organisers also received flak from the public over the inconvenience to be expected from the designation of lanes along seven expressways and 15 arterial roads for the games. Motorists who fail to give way to Olympic vehicles will be fined 97 U.S. dollars.  

Even accommodation for youth athletes at the Games has been the subject of outcry.  

”I used to have hostel accommodation, but was forced to move out to let the athletes take my room,” posts one undergraduate, ‘Darren’, on an Internet website. To accommodate the Games, he claims he now has to travel some two and a half hours each day, to get to his university campus located at the western end of Singapore. 

Still, some believe that the ”prospective prestige of this global event” will prevail. ”It’s also an excellent platform to showcase our up-and-coming athletes as well as our organisational capabilities,” says Aaron Wong, a 27- year-old teacher.  

Adrian Heng, a senior public relations consultant, says he does not envy the games’ organising committee, which has to achieve the ”expectations of a nation that has become used to high standards of everything”.  

Despite big-money efforts to market Singapore as a regional sporting hub  with the establishment of the Singapore Sports School, the hosting of the world’s first Formula 1 night race, and now the Youth Olympic Games  it is seeing one of the worst slumps in local support for sports. 

For some fans, Singapore’s decision to pull out from the Malaysia Cup football competition in 1994 marked the start of the demise in Singaporeans’ interest in local sports. The problem, some say, is compounded by the government’s policy of offering citizenship to foreign athletes to don national colours.  

Citizens called it a ”hollow victory” when the Singapore’s women’s table tennis team trounced China to win the republic’s first world crown in the sport. All three members of the Singaporean team  Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei  were born in China.  

Half of Singapore’s football team are naturalised citizens, originally from countries including Brazil, Croatia, China and Nigeria. In 2009, nearly half of the players in the national rugby team went on strike to protest management’s preferential treatment toward expatriate players. Interestingly, the 30-man squad consisted of only 13 local players.

”I think Singapore is being typically pragmatic in bringing in foreign talent, but this is really a microcosm of a wider social issue.

You have to bring in the talent, but still give opportunities to locals,” says Wong. ”And this is part of a wider issue  the overriding importance of education in Singapore as opposed to alternative careers in sports.”    Hoe says he has fond memories of watching Singapore’s teams play against countries like Malaysia at the National Stadium, but  ”what’s there to support now, when our national teams are not even made up of Singaporeans?”


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