Singapore chef de mission Ben Tan hails team’s tenacity, resilience amid pandemic

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TOKYO – Despite Team Singapore not being able to bring home a medal from 2020, chef de mission Ben Tan remained impressed with the 23 athletes’ “tenacity and resilience amid a pandemic-stricken Games”.

He noted how many athletes had to cope with upheavals caused by the coronavirus pandemic as qualification events were postponed, training plans disrupted and life plans shelved.

At a virtual review on Saturday (Aug 7), the former national sailor, who competed at Atlanta 1996, said: “Team Singapore athletes at these Games have shown us different facets of the human spirit.

“Paddlers Yu Mengyu and Feng Tianwei showed us what true professionalism is. Sailors Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low showed us that by working hard and working smart, we Singaporeans can break into the top rungs of a traditionally European-dominated sport.

“Fencers Amita Berthier and Kiria Tikanah, and shuttlers Loh Kean Yew and Yeo Jiamin showed us the meaning of fearlessness when facing stronger opponents. Rower Joan Poh showed us that even with limited resources, one can earn an Olympic berth.

“Divers Jonathan Chan and Frieda Lim, open-water swimmer Chantal Liew and equestrienne Caroline Chew showed us how they carried the hopes of their respective sports towards Olympic qualification.”

Indeed, there were breakthroughs in the build-up to the Games, as Singapore was represented by 23 athletes across a record 12 sports, with debutants from diving, equestrian and open-water swimming.

While there were no medals – the first time since Athens 2004 that the Republic will home empty-handed – this year, there were bright sparks, he felt.

Kiria, who along with Berthier became the first fencers to qualify for the Olympics, gave world No. 1 Ana Maria Popescu a hard fight in the round of 32 after upsetting Hong Kong’s Coco Lin earlier in the women’s individual epee.

Yu also defied her relatively low world ranking (No. 47 at the start of the Games) and catalogue of injuries to place fourth in the women’s singles – the medallists were the world’s top three players.

Sailors Lim and Low became the first sailors to make an Olympic medal race before finishing 10th – the Republic’s best result in the sport at an Olympics.

But there were disappointments too.

Chew was eliminated after her horse Tribiani was found to be bleeding from the mouth due to a “freak accident”, while Yeo cried after losing to South Korean Kim Ga-eun, whom she had beaten thrice before, and was denied a place in the knockout rounds.

The swimmers were also smarting, as Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen – Rio 2016 men’s 100m butterfly champion and 200m butterfly semi-finalist respectively – and universality place holder Quah Ting Wen did not progress from any of their heats.

(Clockwise from top left) Yu Mengyu, Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low, Yeo Jia Min and Quah Zheng Wen at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG

Tan said: “In sport, disappointment is inevitable – that is the nature of competition. We have all personally faced disappointments in our own lives. I believe our Olympians will, in time to come, show us how champions deal with disappointments.”

Singapore Sport Institute chief Toh Boon Yi acknowledged it and the Singapore Swimming Association had noticed Schooling and Zheng Wen’s declining times and effort was put in to work with coaches in Singapore and the United States, “looking at how to help them overcome challenges”.

Noting that some previous medallists did not even qualify for Tokyo 2020, as well as the lack of competition opportunities due to the pandemic, he added: “Effort has been made, but this is the top end of sport… Athletes train so hard for five years for a race of less than one minute.

“We saw the trend, we worked with people around to address the issues, but the proof is in the pudding, and we have to go back to the drawing board. We have to go back and review what could have been done better.”

Tan also praised the work of the organisers, volunteers and officials, who have managed to limit the number of Covid-19 cases within the Olympic bubble, despite cases in Tokyo surging – when Tan arrived on July 18, there were 1,008 new cases; on Aug 5, there were 5,042.

A tally since July 1 shows that just 404 cases (as of Saturday) are related to the Games, with the majority involving officials and contractors, not athletes, thus defying critics’ fears that the event would turn into a virus super-spreader.

Tan, who is chief of sport and exercise medicine at Changi General Hospital, said: “Despite this, Team Singapore remain infection-free, demonstrating that our bubble-within-a-bubble strategy has been effective.

“I fully appreciate that our athletes have put in an extraordinary effort and sacrificed much in order to strictly abide by a very onerous set of Covid-19 countermeasures.

“Medically, these Games have been uneventful, and in medicine, uneventful is good. Indeed Tokyo 2020 has demonstrated to the world that Covid-19 can be contained.”

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