SINGAPORE — The first SEA Games after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will end with the closing ceremony in Hanoi on Monday (23 May).
Most of the time, it felt familiar. Save for the ubiquitous face masks on the athletes when they were not in competition, everything else seemed typical of a pleasant, decently-run edition of the biennial Games.
Nonetheless, every SEA Games has its own trends, issues and takeaways for each participation contingent. Here are four takeaways from the performances of the Team Singapore athletes:
1. NS issue persists as athletes aim for bigger sporting achievements
As Singapore athletes try to aim for higher sporting achievements, the issue of national service (NS) will continue to be brought up and argued upon.
The reality is this: The higher the sporting target, the harder the training needed. No sportsman is born ready to win the Olympic gold medal, or even in this case the SEA Games gold medal; to win, athletes have to sacrifice insane hours to hone their skills to be ready to seize the golden opportunity when it comes.
And that applies to Joseph Schooling too. Which was why, after months of having to juggle his intense training sessions with his new NS commitments, he was disappointed but not entirely surprised that his SEA Games performances (two golds, one bronze) were not as spectacularly successful as before.
But after hearing whispers that he has "lost it " and is "past it", the Olympic swimming champ felt compelled to call for a national dialogue on the issue of the expectations put on athletes serving NS.
As he had told this reporter during an interview before the Games, "You train 100 per cent, you'll get 100 per cent in competition. If you can train only 80 per cent, you'll only get 80 per cent maximum in the end."
No top athlete would want his requisite training standards to be compromised. But if it has to be - as is the case for Schooling and all the NS-serving athletes in Singapore - then the very least they can hope for is that the medal expectations placed on them should be adjusted too.
Certainly, the sports associations and the Singapore Sports Institute have come up with sound plans to work with NS units to maximise the outcomes of every training session for these athletes.
"All male national athletes are required to fulfil NS obligations. The priority as they undergo full-time NS is their NS duties," said a spokesperson from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, in response to media questions on this issue.
"Within that, MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) has existing provisions such as leave and disruption, to support the training and preparation of our national athletes, taking into account the specific circumstances of the athlete, his sport, and subject to the Singapore Armed Forces’ operational needs."
Yet the blunt truth is that, to scale unprecedented sporting heights like what Schooling did when he won the Olympic gold in 2016, nothing beats a singular focus.
Elite-level sports never stays still; just like world records get smashed regularly, the bars for training standards get raised again and again. Schooling fully gets that, and he hopes everyone - his fans, his detractors, his coaches, the sports bodies and the ministries in charge of NS-serving athletes - would understand him too.
And so the tough dilemma remains. Amid the strong public appetite for gold-winning athletes, it needs the collective realisation of all parties that it may no longer be enough to just grant flexible training hours amid full-time NS commitments, if Singapore athletes are to continue making sporting history.
2. More help needed for Loh Kean Yew as he competes for top honours
Perhaps the only other Singapore athlete who could match Schooling in the levels of adoration by the public is current badminton world champion Loh Kean Yew. His recent exhilarating rise from a talented but flawed underdog to a swashbuckling winner has thrilled fans who are eager for the next sporting hero to come from the city-state.
And the affable 24-year-old has tried his hardest to keep winning, despite his realisation that he now has a target on his back wherever he goes, with every rival eager to take down the world champion. As he told Yahoo News Singapore before the Games, "I can't go back to being an underdog anymore."
While he does not shy away from this reality, he does need all the help he can get.
At the SEA Games, he had a shot at becoming the first Singaporean men's singles gold winner in 39 long years. However, the cumulative effects of a tough Thomas Cup finals campaign just before the Games, as well as his gruelling semi-final win against a wily defensive opponent, conspired against Loh in the final, as he looked drained and out of sorts in a one-sided loss.
One may boil it down to growing pains for a rising star who has to get used to repeatedly going deep into semi-finals and finals of major competitions. Yet, couldn't the national badminton team freshen him up for the men's singles by sitting him out for the team competition at the Games?
Circumstances may not have allowed Loh to be dropped, but perhaps it is time to think about maximising his winning potential and not burning him out.
The next chance to end the SEA Games men's singles drought comes by quickly - next year, in fact. Perhaps the Singapore Badminton Association can start planning Loh's competition schedule, and allow him enough rest and recovery to lead the charge again for the prized gold.
3. Table tennis at a crossroads as it rebuilds with local youngsters
It is never easy for sports associations to continuously produce medal-winning athletes, generation after generation.
The past decade has seen sports like wushu, shooting and silat having to deal with the retirements of their outstanding athletes, and needing to adjust their medal expectations.
For this Games, it is clear that Singapore table tennis is going through such pains. With former Olympians Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu no longer competing for the national squad, it was always going to be a tall order for the paddlers to dominate the SEA Games competition as they had done before.
Coupled with the untimely injury absence of top female paddler Lin Ye, and Singapore lost its grip on the women's team gold, and came up short in the men's and women's singles while still earning two doubles golds. Despite the Singapore Table Tennis Association's willingness to hand over the reins to youngsters, it was evident that the talent levels of this new generation of paddlers could not overcome their inexperience.
And that is perfectly fine; these young paddlers should be given the time to grow into their roles as key national-team players. Yet there were clear signs that STTA is moving away from its reliance on China-born paddlers in the past two decades. Already, the men's team is entirely made up of Singapore-born players.
Could that end Singapore's dominance in the sport at the Games? It's too early to say, but STTA got a glimpse of it at this Games.
4. Stirring successes like Shanti Pereira give SEA Games its unique allure
As with any SEA Games, there are many stirring success stories among the medal-winning Singapore athletes in Hanoi. Here are a few of them:
Elle Koh, who belied her 14 years of age to topple defending champion and compatriot Kiriah Tikanah Abdul Rahman for the women's epee fencing gold.
Iqbal Abdul Rahman (silat), Nurul Suhaila (silat) and Contessa Loh (archery), athletes who never gave up despite not being able to win gold in past editions, and finally got their sweet rewards at this Games.
The three Quah siblings, whose consistent excellence throughout the past decade defined Singapore's dominance in swimming at the Games. Each of them won at least four golds in Hanoi, each of them an exemplary act for the new generation of swimmers to follow.
Peter Gilchrist, who refused to wallow on losing his six-Games gold-winning streak in the men's English Billiards singles, and bounced back immediately to clinch the doubles gold with Alex Puan.
But, personally, the most beautiful success story among all the Singapore athletes at the Games has to be that of sprinter Shanti Pereira.
After memorably winning the 200m race at the National Stadium in the 2015 Games, many expected her to dominate the regional sprint scene. But a combination of unfortunate injuries and unwanted political distractions amid the athletic association saw her form and her results dip in the ensuing years.
Few expected Pereira to make a big mark in Hanoi, but she thrillingly returned to the glorious heights of 2015, sweeping to the 200m gold again and bursting into tears at her barely-believable comeback. A few days later, she made waves again by winning silver in the 100m, after three consecutive bronzes in the event.
"There were so many mental barriers I had to break in order to reach this place," she said after that glorious 200m win. And she led the way in a promising revival of the Singapore track-and-field athletes, who collected a total of 11 medals in their best overall performance since 1993.
Shanti's comeback, together with so many other stirring success stories, are the backbone in which the SEA Games continues to cast its unique allure among Singaporeans. There is always a chance that another great success story can be unearthed amid the thousands of athletes dreaming of gold in the small city-state.