Tomorrow, the Olympic flame leaves Tokyo. It will re-emerge in Paris in three years but Tokyo’s Covid-delayed Games has left indelible memories seared into our minds.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve watched our paddlers, shuttlers, swimmers, divers, rowers, sailors, fencers, shooter, gymnast, runner and rider, give their all to make Singapore proud.

On Monday, the day after the Olympic flame goes dim, we celebrate National Day. Just like the Olympics, our celebrations have been affected by Covid – we are in the midst of another Heightened Alert, morale is low and many are struggling.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen a different, more negative side to Singaporeans recently.

The wrong Singapore spirit

Joseph Schooling’s failure to defend his 100m butterfly title sparked off a swarm of negativity online. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

That seems to be the sense of things online. Heightened Alert, blame it on the KTV cluster. School tragedy, blame the system for stressing our children. Disappointing result at the Olympics, blame the athlete for not getting a medal. National Day Parade delay, blame it on the Heightened Alert…

When do we end this circle of negativity? We rant and we vent and we post unkind comments, and we think we are doing people a favour by vomiting all this vitriol into the online space, but to what end?

After that release, do we feel any better? Or do we, as I’d argue, struggle with a vague sense of dissatisfaction… knowing that we’ve talked about what bothered us yet didn’t actually get any real resolution?

Then we brush off this unease, and go back to our TikToks dances or Instagram stories or shopping apps or Netflix shows or whatever else we do to paper over our existentialist dread before the next (racist/sexist/criminal/socially unacceptable) incident invokes the angry troll in us.

Is this the Singapore spirit?

Finding inspiration from the Olympic spirit

Shanti Pereira clocked a season-best 23.96 seconds in the women’s 200m heats. She is the first female sprinter to represent Singapore at the Olympic Games in 65 years. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

The Olympic creed, attributed to the modern founder of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin, states: “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” The Frenchman also came up with the original motto in 1894, “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which translated from Latin, is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”.

Together, that is the Olympic spirit. To keep pushing, to be greater versions of ourselves.

It is the fight that is important, not the result.

Yu Mengyu battled injuries in her semi-final loss to world no.1 Chen Meng, who went on to win the gold. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

Team SG’s chef de mission Dr Ben Tan tells The Pride: “What people see on the Olympic stage is just the culmination of years and years of blood and sweat. What it takes to get there, few will be able to fathom. The falls, the failures, the injuries, the sacrifices.”

“Take gymnastics, for example, the falls can be horrendous, and yet they get up and make attempt after attempt to get it right. When most are sound asleep, the athletes are already sweating it out, on the track, road, gym or pool. Many train twice a day.”

Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low were first Singaporean sailors to qualify for a medal race at the Olympics, placing 10th overall in a fleet of 21, Singapore’s best ever finish. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

“The athletes make it look easy, but that’s only an appearance. Our sailors perform complex maneouvres in winds and waves that others take shelter from, on edgy high-performance boats that the average sailor won’t dare step onto.”

“The training and life that athletes endure just to qualify for the Olympics are not what many parents would wish on their children. Many make the sacrifice and never make it to the Olympics – we forget that that is the norm rather than the exception.”

The athlete’s life is not an easy one, as Dr Tan says, and it is often a lonely one.

That’s why this year, it is so apt that the International Olympic Committee added an extra word to its motto:

It adds a new dimension to the idea of competition – Togetherness.

Says Dr Tan: “Athletes exemplify the Olympic spirit, which so happens to epitomise the human spirit. When others say it cannot be done, athletes go out to prove them wrong.

“When tensions are building between nations, we see arch rivals in sports embracing and congratulating one another after doing battle, regardless of nationality. When people are displaced by war, the IOC Refugee Olympic Team reminds us that sports brings us all together.”

“When the world is struggling to get out of this pandemic, Tokyo 2020 shows the path. The Olympic motto, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together’ sums it up – we see athletes doing battle, but what is less tangible is the unity that the battle forges.”

Togetherness – the true Singapore spirit

Kiria Tikanah Abdul Rahman gave Romanian world No. 1 Ana Maria Popescu a good run for her money in their bout. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

Our Singaporean Olympian sons and daughters have returned from their Tokyo adventure. Soon, our Paralympians will take their stead.

Yes, it is disappointing that we did not get a medal, and questions need to be asked about our athletes’ performances if they did not measure up to par (a great example of how to start this conversation is CNA’s Gerard Wong’s excellent commentary).

But our support of our athletes must not waver.

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I am, as George Carlin would say, a disappointed idealist, and my cynicism has been given a fair workout these past couple of weeks when Singaporeans showed our ugly side over Joseph Schooling’s poor showing in the pool; it got so bad that even the BBC mentioned it in an article on how online sentiment can turn against athletes.

But behind the disappointment, I still believe. I believe that dark clouds hold silver linings, and storms, while violent and scary at times, can bring clarity and cleansing.

Finding greatness

Tan Sze En shook off a wobble on the balance beam to finish strong and gave a performance to be proud of. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

A quote attributed to American president John F Kennedy says the Chinese word for “crisis” (危机) can be represented as “Danger + Opportunity”. (Although, as all often-used quotes, go, the reality is slightly more complicated).

With the current tides of Covid lapping at our door, we are in a crisis of confidence right now, but there is an opportunity to be greater than what we are.

When our Covid fears gave rise to xenophobic outbursts, we rallied on the side of inclusivity and diversity, calling out bad behaviour and sharing stories of multi-culturalism and multi-racial harmony.

When the tragedy at River Valley High School struck, and a boy lost his life at the hands of a troubled schoolmate, we mourned as a nation, and grieved with the families. We are now asking hard questions of the roles of schools and families in the mental well-being of our children and while the trigger was tragic, we can but hope that some good may come out of it.

When Schooling came in 44th in a field of 55, netizens were merciless, sparking a backlash by his supporters to that backlash from his detractors. But that too has engendered a conversation on expectation, performance and the nature of competition. And fired up Singaporeans to support our athletes all the more.

As Dr Tan says: “Whether an athlete medals or not, whether he or she qualifies for the Olympics or not, it is the journey itself that yields the rewards of discipline, resilience, and mastery. The path that athletes chose is the tougher route, not the easier one.”

After Singapore’s first open water swimmer at the Olympics Chantal Liew finished her event, she gave reporters a laugh at her post-swim interview when she succinctly stated what she thought of the haters.

“I hope it shuts them up and I hope it shuts up all the armchair critics in Singapore. It’s tough, what we do… Sometimes your best is not good enough … but you live and you learn. At the end of the day, I love what I do, and I think all the athletes love what they do and nothing can take that away from us.”

Chantal Liew clocked 2:08.17.9 in the 10km marathon swim. Image source: Kong Chong Yew / Singapore National Olympic Council

We should learn from our athletes’ examples, not to take the easier path towards negativity and hate, but walk the more thoughtful, and yes, tougher, path towards kindness and other-centredness.

We know the secret of how to do it. It’s in the Olympic motto — “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together” and in this year’s theme for National Day — “Together, Our Singapore Spirit”.

That is the key to overcoming hardship. Together. Not apart. Not turning on each other, but supporting each other, giving feedback when needed but with a gentle touch, not a sarcastic comment. Understanding that even when emotions are raised and words are flung, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

That’s how we can keep the flame burning.

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Top Image: Singapore National Olympic Council