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SEA Games: More work ahead, even with best athletics medal haul for Singapore since 1993

HANOI - Patience and perseverance have paid off for the athletics contingent who return to Singapore on Friday (May 20) with their best SEA Games results in almost 30 years, but more work is to be done if they are to build on this promise.

They picked up 11 medals - one gold, three silvers and seven bronzes - in Hanoi, marking a significant improvement from the last edition of the event. Three years ago in the Philippines, they had picked up just three bronze medals.

Hosts Vietnam continued their dominance of the athletics programme, topping the table with 22 golds, well clear of Thailand (12) and the Philippines (five).

For Singapore, the last time they yielded a double-digit return was the 1993 edition on home soil, with 12 (1-3-8).

Singapore Athletics (SA) president Lien Choong Luen was "elated" with the team's showing and said it was the result of a concerted effort from the track and field fraternity.

"I'm very proud, first and foremost, of the athletes," he said. "But also of the coaches for keeping the faith in them through the pandemic.

"A big shoutout must also go to the technical officials and events team (in SA), as well as the broader athletics community for their role in this performance."

This is the first Games since Lien and his team were elected as SA leadership in September 2020, and they had sought to run the association, previously plagued by infighting and politicking, with a more athlete-centric approach.

Former national sprinter and men's 100m record holder U.K. Shyam said the marked improvement was also the result of athletes staying true to their course.

"The medals go to show we are not short of talent, and that it's about being consistent," said Shyam, 45.

"Some of them have been at a few SEA Games so now they're more mature, have composure and consistency from the years of training and competing at this level is about staying in the sport and improving over time."

He gave the example of 100m hurdler Ang Chen Xiang, 28, who won his first medal, a silver, in his fourth SEA Games outing.

Other athletes, like 27-year-old Tan Zong Yang (400m), 26-year-old Calvin Quek (400m hurdles) and 29-year-old Goh Chui Ling (800m, 1,500m and 10,000m) also won breakthrough medals despite years of falling short at previous Games.

Said Shyam: "At the Asian Games, it is rare that you get a medal in your first outing because you need a couple of cycles of training and competing to get there.

"It's now the same at the SEA Games. The standards in the region are improving from 20 years ago, and the lines are all blurring, be it from the (top of) South-east Asia to the Asian level, or from the (top) Asian level to the world level."

Achieving this consistency, however, is challenging said national relays head coach Luis Cunha.

"The problem is, the system in Singapore does not allow athletes to have a long 'normal' career," said the Portuguese.

"After they finish university, they start working (instead of continuing to train). And if you have a nine-to-five job it's hard to train well."

He said that at the international level, many of their competitors are full-time athletes. "And this is a problem that affects athletes in many sports, not just in athletics."

Cunha warned that unless this is remedied, the success in Hanoi may prove to be a false dawn.

"Some people will be happy because we have many debutants and so there's potential (to go further)," he said. "But the truth is some are going to quit in the next two or three years, so in the end we are always in the building stage."

While he is aware of these challenges, Lien chooses to remain bullish.

"As I told the team in Hanoi, this is only the start," he said. "We can use the excitement this team has delivered and I want to see more... participants from other events like racewalking, more throwers, more female representatives and even more younger athletes."

The athletes are equally optimistic. Said Thiruben Thana Rajan, 22, who won a bronze medal as part of the 4x400m relay team: "I think this shows... we can have a good next generation of athletes for Singapore. I really think we can do it."

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