Leonard Thomas: Now to keep the flame burning
Our athletes have excelled in the SEA Games and the nation must be given tools to continue this success
As the four friends munched on popcorn and drank their Coke in between cheering the athletes at the National Stadium, they checked their watches, counting down to the big moment.
The sprinter they had come to support was sitting somewhere below in a call room, focusing her mind on the event that represented her best hope for a gold medal.
It was approaching 6.35pm on June 10 and Veronica Shanti Pereira was the main event for the four youngsters as well as many of the nearly 10,000 spectators in the stands.
The 18-year-old Singaporean had won bronze in the 100m just a day earlier but a gold medal would be the crowning glory for the hard work she had put in for the Games.
As she stepped out to the track, she said a quiet prayer and asked God to protect her legs in her most cherished event.
Minutes later, Shanti's long, lean legs pumped in dream-like motion for 23.60 seconds to cover 200m and became the first Singaporean woman to win a SEA Games sprint event in 42 years, in the process rewriting the Singapore record she had set earlier in the heats.
It was my moment of the 2015 SEA Games, as it was for Daniel, Ryan, Thaddeus and Neil, the four friends who were screaming, dancing and cheering for their new hero.
These enthusiastic 15-year-olds are the type of supporters that Singsoc chairman Lawrence Wong and his team would have targeted to woo and captivate as Singapore played host to the region's biggest multi-sport event for the first time since 1993.
If the goal was to make the nation fall in love with sport all over again, then sports minister Wong and his team must be congratulated for drawing up a blueprint to make the SEA Games play Cupid.
Singapore has fallen head over heels for Shanti, Schooling, the Quahs, our golden netball girls, bronzed canoeists, sharp shooters and super sailors, among so many others, in this record-breaking Games.
RECORD MEDAL HAUL
We have a record haul of 84 gold (surpassing The New Paper's target of 75 gold), 73 silver and 102 bronze medals. No other participating country can match our total collection of medals.
Singapore has never seen anything like this. And I am sure Mr Wong and his team are aware that Singaporeans have been waiting for something like this to inspire us.
It is now crucial that our sports authorities leverage on this moment of glory and goodwill by ensuring that funding, coaching and training programmes are in place for the long term so Singapore can continue climbing up the sports ladder.
This success did not happen by accident.
A $75-million Sports School came to life in 2004 to give youngsters with sporting talent a platform where they could study academic subjects while developing their particular sports discipline.
The school must be given further resources to raise standards even more in both academic and athletic programmes.
A $40-million Spex Scholarship programme was launched early last year to give our elite athletes the necessary support to fulfil their potential.
I hope the Government will not baulk at pumping in more money because we have seen how heroes like Shanti, Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen can galvanise thousands across the nation to either take up sports or support those who do.
Surely, the likes of Shanti and Zheng Wen should also follow in Schooling's footsteps and head overseas to world-class institutions where they can train with top coaches and compete against tougher opponents.
We must also recruit and develop more outstanding coaches to help build a successful sporting ecosystem.
A Final Push initiative was set up early last year to provide financial support for various athletes and teams so they could concentrate on the final phase of their preparations for the SEA Games.
Perhaps Sport Singapore should make this initiative permanent for every major sporting event because it has paid off handsomely in its first act.
Various programmes have helped our table tennis players shine on the world and Olympic stages.
Shooters Jasmine Ser, 24, Tessa Neo, 17, and Martina Veloso, 15, are already capable of mixing it with the best.
There are also high expectations for Colin Cheng, 25, who was Asia's best sailor at the 2012 Olympics when he finished 15th.
We must nurture and support such talent so they can excel in major sports events across the globe.
Singapore also excelled in staging a stellar SEA Games.
About 17,000 volunteers contributed to the success. The new Sports Hub was a fitting centrepiece of the Games. This was also the first digital Games, where one could catch most events not just on television but also on computers and mobile devices.
South-east Asia was impressed. Malaysia, the next host in 2017, has already said that ours is an act to follow.
Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised after the annual success of the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the WTA Finals.
Could hosting a world athletics championship or the World Aquatics Championships, or even the Asian Games, be far behind?
Well after the Games' flame is doused, I know of four friends who will continue to talk about that moment on June 10 when they were dazzled by the magic of sport.
Daniel is my lovable nephew, a smart rascal who excitedly proclaimed they were at the bend where Shanti turned on the afterburners to surge into the lead.
He has christened it Shanti's Curve.
I hope the top brass at the Sports Hub adopt the name.
It is what nations in love with sport would do.
Share your views with Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of gold medals Singapore won at this year's SEA Games. Singapore also won 73 silver medals and 102 bronze medals, the most for any country.
We have been developing and growing the sporting scene for some time, in terms of resourcing and facilities... We will continue to build on whatever we have been doing, not just for the SEA Games but also the Asian Games.
- Singapore National Olympic Council president Tan Chuan-Jin shortly after handing over the SEA Games Federation flag to Malaysia