Commentary: Joseph Schooling, Loh Kean Yew — why can’t our Singapore heroes keep up with their success?

Joseph Schooling and Loh Kean Yew: What happened to our sporting stars?

Joseph Schooling’s sporting career should have ended on a higher and sweeter note with the swimming star adding to his tally of a single Olympic gold medal. 

I remember that 100m butterfly victory in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 so well. A whoop of joy pierced through the early morning air as a hero-starved nation celebrated with one jubilant voice.

It was not just the medal. His victory was even more meaningful because of the so-called triple effect: He went into the history books for being the first Singaporean to win an Olympic gold, break a Games record and beat American swimming sensation Michael Phelps.  

Source: sgolympics on Instagram

Expectations were pushed sky high. But five years later, he failed to rekindle that joy. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021, not only did he not get into the final, he also clambered out of the pool with a miserable last spot in the heats. Not only that, he was ranked 44th out of 55 swimmers.

What happened to our one-hit wonder?

Schooling hints at several reasons for retirement

Schooling’s press conference and interviews following his retirement announcement gave a couple of hints. He said complacency got the better of him. He thought “that this will last forever because I’m so far ahead”, he said in a Straits Times report.

Besides that, the fame got “overwhelming”. He was just 21 years old and dealing with such hero worship was not easy to handle. 

Then there was fatigue, he admitted. “I was just sick and tired of it,” he said in the same report. Focusing one’s entire youthful life on a single purpose, “without giving my mind a rest”, had exacted a toll.

It also looked like the support system was not there for him. He was in his 20s and coping with the trappings that come with being a celebrity. It can make a young man, feted as a hero by the entire nation for arriving at the pinnacle of fame, feel that there is nothing else to achieve.

What else could have led to Schooling’s undoing?

Then Schooling took on a new and controversial avatar. He became the brand ambassador for a number of companies such as DBS Bank and luxury fashion brand Hugo Boss.

Source: Joseph Schooling on Instagram

Posing as a model must have been distracting for a young athlete who needed to be single minded to win a second Olympic gold. I remember telling myself then that this route to more money and a different kind of fame can only take his mind away from his sporting mission.

Was National Service a factor? Here is his answer that was given during the press conference: “When I went in, I had a really negative mindset about being taken out of the Olympics, having to adjust to this new way of life.” But midway through his Basic Military Training, his mentality changed.

What he did not say was that the Navy knocked on his door only after his poor performance in the 2020 Olympics.

Outside the Olympic pool, Schooling did very well in the Asian and SEA Games. And as he was getting into the swing of things, he got into trouble after he was caught taking cannabis, an act he regrets. But this act upset the authorities, especially the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), which had given him leave of absence to compete in the 2022 SEA Games.

Comparisons with another sporting star

It is worth comparing him to another young hero. 

Badminton star Loh Kean Yew became the first Singaporean to win the world badminton championship in 2021, but faltered and failed in the competitions that followed. Unlike Schooling, he was determined to win again. 

BWF — Badminton World Federation on Facebook

He did that after he won the Spain Masters a few weeks ago, ending a two-year title drought.

Soon after came the disappointing news that the 26-year-old was knocked out of the Badminton Asia Championships in the first round.

A disappointing result, considering he was the first Singaporean to win a silver medal at this competition a year ago.

Loh seems to be following Schooling’s footsteps now that he has failed at the Asia Championships.

Source: sgolympics on Instagram

At one time, the problem was that our sportsmen and women were failing to achieve world success. Now it is the lack of their ability to continue to succeed.

It is time that our sports officials ask themselves why this is happening.

One undeniable fact is that Singapore lacks a strong support system. Sports stars have big egos which need nurturing and massaging. Coaches need to learn the skill of disciplining and encouraging our stars.

Only then can our sportsmen and women shine on the world stage permanently.

PN Balji is a veteran journalist and former editor at TODAY and The New Paper, with more than 40 years of experience in the newsroom.

Also read: Joseph Schooling: The rise & fall of S’pore’s first Olympic gold medallist

Joseph Schooling: The rise & fall of S’pore’s first Olympic gold medallist


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Featured image adapted from Joseph Schooling on Instagram and sgolympics on Instagram.

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