Why do we watch sports? You can do the research, but I’m guessing we are looking for heroes. Heroic stories to rouse us from the monotony of our everyday routines. Maybe even restore our faith in humanity, battered too much by terrorist attacks, keyboard warriors, and Donald Trump insults.
In Rio, we witnessed our generation’s giants take their well-deserved bows. Michael Phelps returned to rewrite his Olympic ending, succeeded, and is ready to move on after 23 golds. Usain Bolt came to conquer, and conquered the triple treble. Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei staved off their planned retirements and, at age 33 and 34, completed the tale of their remarkable rivalry, even if neither ended up as champion.There is even more to savour as a Singaporean. Alongside 9 other countries, Singapore won her 1st ever gold medal, courtesy of Joseph Schooling! We have been enthralled by his unquestionable promise in prior meets, but in Rio, he rose to the challenge and beat his idol Phelps in the process. He has now become the hero we look up to.
Sporting Conflicts in SG
But sport does not exist in a vacuum. It cannot be separated from politics, especially since we started constructing our worlds from comment sections. Needless to say, some seized on Schooling’s historic achievement to take a potshot at “imports”. We rather send only “pure” Singaporeans to lose, than foreigners who may not win.
Well, that’s easy to say now. When Tao Li put in performances which belied her frame and became our first swimming Olympic finalist, we didn’t complain. When our paddlers (from China) finally landed our first medal since Tan Howe Liang’s weightlifting silver decades ago, we cheered. When they defeated (the actual, indomitable) China in the 2009 World Championships, we hurrahed.History can be reconstructed. Fortunately, no monopoly exists in digital news and comment sections nowadays. While there’s often something to frown at with any social media article, there’s much to be thankful for. After Schooling’s feat, I expected and found such a contest of perspectives that I needn’t do any first-hand thinking of my own.
The Schooling family are feted as heroes, but we haven’t forgotten others. Journalists criticized Quah Zheng Wen for not taking interviews; the Internet leaped to his defence. Cynics criticized Lee Bee Wah for taking some credit; fact-checkers wrote in her defence. Antagonists derided the table tennis team’s failure to win a medal; supporters received them passionately at the airport anyway. All of them are unsung heroes, including the mortals among us who lended their own sensibilities.
And don’t forget Tan Howe Liang, some reminded. He is the hero who had to bear 56 years of the same questions.
Beyond Herculean Feats
Tokyo must be cursing now. The Rio Olympics may have been riddled with problems and controversies, from Zika to Russia to algae to Ryan Lochte. But with the swansong of several sporting giants, where can we find our heroes from now on?
There will be new heroes; there are already. Have you seen Mo Farah pick up from a fall almost immediately to win his race? Have you seen Wayde van Niekerk shatter the exulted WR (for 400m) like Bolt did in Beijing 2008? Have you seen Katie Ledecky thrash all opponents in freestyle?But the Herculean feats of Bolt and Phelps may never be surpassed. Perhaps they will be, but we won’t believe it till then. Bolt, the aptly-named saviour and showman of a sport repeatedly chomped down by doping. Phelps, the spotlight who moved swimming into primetime, returning to show his human side with no less ruthlessness in the pool. They are not just greats, but great ambassadors for their sports.
We are awed by heroes. But we love the stories behind them even more. That’s why we celebrate fallen runners helping each other. That’s why we celebrate a quirky Chinese swimmer musing in delight over 0.05 seconds. She’s not our typical hero, but she’s genuine. She’s one of us.
Let’s not forget that that the legends, too, are one of us. They only made it look effortless. If they stumble, onstage or off, remember that they are only human too.