‘Time to stop mollycoddling our athletes’

The table tennis teams departed for London last Friday without speaking to the media (STTA)The table tennis teams departed for London last Friday without speaking to the media (STTA)

COMMENT

Should they or should they not speak to the press?

That seemed to be the conundrum faced by Singapore's best athletes in recent weeks as they jet out to London for what, in most cases, will be the pinnacle of their sporting careers, the 30th Olympic Games.

Well, here's my take.

The media blackout -- or "advisory", as the Singapore National Olympic Council prefers to call it -- is frustrating, and for lack of a better word, unnecessary.

What purpose does this kind of "wrap in cotton wool" treatment serve? To lessen the "pressure of expectation" on them? We can do better.

Last week, 100m butterfly specialist Tao Li,  Singapore's biggest hope for a medal in the pool, set off for London under a veil of "radio silence".

Just a day later, the Republic's table tennis team -- our best hope for a medal of any kind -- departed for Surrey Sports Park in London with nary a whimper.

Indeed, the last time the media -- or Singaporeans for that matter -- heard from the players was at a press conference at the end of last month.

The Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) cited the media "ban" as the reason for the paddlers giving local press crew the cold shoulder.

What makes the whole situation even more farcical is that women's table tennis team captain Feng Tianwei was allowed to sign table-tennis balls at the launch of a new sporting-themed condominium by her sponsors, developers Koh Brothers, last Saturday.

Table-tennis chief Lee Bee Wah defended Feng's appearance, saying the women's team head coach  "okayed" the appearance.

Feng, Tao, and other London-bound Team Singapore athletes like shooter Jasmine Ser and shuttlers Shinta Mulia Sari and Yao Lei are not your promising athletes going for a regional meet for "the experience".

They are among an elite, handpicked group of sportsmen groomed under the Olympic Pathway Programme (OPP), a six-year-long government initiative launched in 2006 costing S$6.5 m-i-l-l-i-o-n dollars to help the cream of Singapore's athletes win medals at the 2012 Olympics.

They have been training for years, their bodies -- and minds -- should be at peak condition, their every straining muscle and sinew primed for the pinnacle of performance.

And yet they cannot be allowed to face the media to avoid placing "undue pressure" on them?

I never could figure this one out. On the one hand, sports officials say we, the local media,  don't give local sports enough coverage.

And yet, here we are on the eve of the world's biggest sporting spectacle, having to beg and plead to be able to speak to our own athletes -- only to be told, no, sorry, no can do.

As one local sporting official puts it, it's not even as if the local media behave like the notoriously aggressive British media pack, ready to rip its own athletes to shreds at any hint of scandal or sub-par performance.

If our athletes, after years of conditioning and blood, sweat and tears, cannot handle the "pressure" of a few questions by a  bunch of sports journalists trying to do their jobs, then it must surely mean all these years of training has gone to waste.

Is it any wonder then that the country is yet to produce a truly world class athlete, a la Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, that Singaporeans are happy to call their own and support?

Don't get me wrong. Our table tennis girls did the whole nation proud when they upset the Chinese to win the world championships in 2010.

But they are the exception rather than the rule.

Continue mollycoddling our athletes in this way, and having a Phelps or Bolt to call ours will remain a pipe dream, now and for a long, long time.

While Feng Tianwei can't speak to the media, she is allowed to sign autographs and pose for photos at the launch of Parc Olympia last SaturdayWhile Feng Tianwei can't speak to the media, she is allowed to sign autographs and pose for photos at the launch …