The role of sports (and athletes) in strengthening national identity
In August 2016, Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal by winning the men’s 100 metres butterfly at the Rio Olympics in record time.
Singapore erupted in joyful celebration, cheering the achievement of a Singaporean athlete who beat one of the greatest Olympians in history, American Michael Phelps.
The Olympic win by Schooling further propelled the role of sports in bringing Singaporeans of different backgrounds together, whether to cheer for our athletes or to participate in sports.
Earlier generations of Singaporeans will fondly recall how Singaporeans of different backgrounds bonded through their support for the Lions’ “Dream Team” that won the 1994 Malaysia Cup. Today, Singaporeans continue to display this same national spirit as they draw pride in the achievements and efforts of “Team Singapore”.
Schooling’s Olympic win is an important milestone in Singapore’s efforts to nurture world-class athletes. Schooling, along with other athletes such as national silat exponent Sheik Farhan bin Sheik Alau’ddin, national sprinter Shanti Pereira, and swimmer Joscelin Yeo, have inspired Singaporeans to believe in our nation’s ability to achieve extraordinary sporting achievements.
Singapore’s representation and success on the international sporting stage has been steadily growing. In 2021, Sheik Farhan was featured on Forbes’ sixth list of 300 Asians under the age of 30 “who are braving the challenging environment brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and finding new opportunities amidst the new normal”. In late 2021, shuttler Loh Kean Yew made national history by winning the World Badminton Championships.
During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, 23 Singaporean athletes competed in a record 12 sports, including first-time appearances in equestrian, marathon swimming, and diving events.
Meanwhile, at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, swimmer Yip Pin Xiu won her fourth and fifth gold medals. In late 2021, Aloysius Yapp became the world’s Number 1 player in pool, while Shayna Ng won gold at the International Bowling Federation Super World Championships.
The sporting journey of an elite athlete is rarely a smooth one, and our national athletes’ experience of failure helps us as a nation to embrace a broader definition of success. Schooling’s failure to qualify for the semi-finals at the Tokyo Olympics spurred national conversations about the importance of mental health and resilience, particularly during the gruelling pandemic when many athletes trained in isolation. The outpouring of support from many Singaporeans for Schooling, and the affirmation that “it is okay for Olympic Champions not to be okay” reflect the spirit of solidarity as we rally around our fellow Singaporeans in good and bad times.
Sports also help shape our identity as healthy, fit, and resilient Singaporeans. Sport Singapore (previously known as Singapore Sports Council) has sought to instil a love for sports and exercise in Singaporeans through strategic blueprints such as “Sports for Life” in 1996, and “Sporting Singapore” in 2001.
These blueprints sought to use sports as a common ground for forging camaraderie among Singaporeans. For example, in our public housing estates, there is careful urban planning to provide easily accessible spaces for sports, such as basketball and badminton courts and running tracks. Sport Singapore has also built a network of ActiveSG Sports Centres, which offer sports facilities to the general public in different parts of the country. Many of these facilities are made free or available at low-cost to encourage Singaporeans to gather and exercise.
The current “Vision 2030”, which spans 2013 to 2030, lays out aspirations for Singaporeans, such as becoming “future-ready through sport” and tapping into “sport as a national language”.
One highlight of this vision is the creation of the Super Sports Club to help ensure more people stay active in sports after they leave school. After a year of conceptualizing and planning, ActiveSG was formed to realise the Super Sports Club recommendation, by providing experiential sport-related programmes at sports centres island-wide. This reflects the importance of encouraging more Singaporeans of all fitness and skill levels to experience sports together.
As we continue to root for our national athletes and the aspiring sportsmen and sportswomen among us, our national identity is growing stronger. Our national spirit celebrates not just sporting achievements but also the core attributes of “Pride, Performance and Perseverance” that anchor the ethos of Team Singapore.