When Yip Pin Xiu touched home in the pool on Saturday morning, she clinched gold in the 100m backstroke S2 final at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Euphoria erupted in the stands, and the local swimmer took a moment to let it all sink in – she had won Singapore’s first medal of this Games, shaving a remarkable two seconds off her own world record mark in the process.
It was a similar scene that had played out not too long ago. In August, the nation celebrated as Joseph Schooling beat out his childhood idol Michael Phelps for gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In 50.39 seconds, he had shattered the Olympics record for the 100m butterfly and made history by bringing home Singapore’s first Olympic gold.
Within a month, two world-beaters have put Singapore on the map. Twice, the strains of Majulah Singapura have rung out on the world stage on the back of feats of sporting excellence. Given the unique ability of sports to rouse the masses, it was hardly surprising that social media erupted in the wake of Yip’s win, with congratulatory messages coming fast and furious.
It didn’t take long before comparisons were made. After all, Schooling had been given the height of a hero’s welcome on his return, going on a victory parade and receiving generous sponsorships from corporate entities.
These entities were notably less excited this time, and there was hardly a rush to place full-page ads in the local papers congratulating Yip the way it had been with Schooling.
Glaringly, Schooling’s gold won him $1 million in prize money from the local Olympics Council, while Yip’s will win her just $160,000. Although no small sum by any means, it called into question the disparity in earnings for two individuals who had won gold medals for their country, going through the same blood, sweat and tears that mark an athlete’s quest.
Is it because the Paralympics lacks the prestige and distinction of the Olympics? It would appear so, given the government’s response in 2008 when Yip won her first Paralympics gold medal. Back then, it was explained that the Paralympics did not match the level of competition seen at the Olympics, since the latter is a free-for-all system where the best athletes compete to be crowned the world’s best.
In contrast, as para-athletes only compete with those who are in the same bracket of disability classification, the Paralympics is seen to have a smaller competition base, which accounts for the smaller prize money on offer.
From an administration’s point of view, it makes sense. After all, systems need to be in place to ensure fairness, and part of this process involves dissecting and measuring achievements to a science. And seeing that this is taxpayer’s money, they certainly do have a responsibility to ensure that it is spent wisely.
At the same time, for a society that has said a lot about how important it is to be inclusive, this was a great opportunity for us to send out a resounding message about how we value our disabled population, and how as a society, being disabled is not a disadvantage. Imagine the message that sends to a young disabled child.
Is the SEA Games comparable to the Olympics? Should Youth Olympians receive the same rewards as their adult counterparts? Probably not. And the system makes it clear that the Olympics is the pinnacle of sporting achievement, and that our athletes need to be gunning for glory there.
But all things considered, the Paralympics aren’t quite the same as the SEA Games or Winter Olympics. For para-athletes who devote the same time and dedication to their sporting pursuits as your Schoolings and Taos, it is the same bastion of achievement, and a mark of having made it in their sport.
For Theresa Goh, Singapore’s veteran representative at the Paralympics, winning her first medal on Monday since her debut four Games ago was the sweet culmination of more than a decade of relentless perseverance.
And the achievements of Paralympians are no less stunning than that of Olympians – just ask Paralympics gold medallist Abdellatif Baka of Algeria. The 22-year old bested his Olympian counterpart’s timing for the 1,500m running event by 1.7 seconds, along with the three runners who came in after him. They would have stood on the podium had they been competing at the Rio Olympics in August.
If anything, the achievements of our Paralympians may be all the more worth celebrating because their stories exemplify the ethos of meeting the odds head-on to pursue their dreams, and rising above them through nothing less than hard work and determination. Surely, there can be no greater hallmark of a worthy Olympian, para or otherwise, than that.
So if we are to be the inclusive people that we aspire towards, rewarding our para-athletes the same way we do their able-bodied counterparts will send the loudest signal yet that persons with disabilities have an equal place in our society.
After all, Paralympians are Olympians too, are they not?