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Monday, August 06, 2012

Olympics and Foreign Talent

I was coming back from a vacation with a few colleagues. There was a big crowd gathered at the neighbourhood coffee shop, and they were watching the third place match between Li Jiawei and another ping pong player. It was interesting – this was the Athens Olympics, so it must have been a lifetime ago, because now Athens is like shit. That was the first time we had the question of foreign talent. Li Jiawei didn't win, and so Singapore's chance of an individual medal was deferred until 8 years later, when Feng Tianwei managed to do what Li Jiawei failed to do.

Now that we have achieved a few Olympic medals, all in women’s table tennis, we have to confront what it really means. This is table tennis, of course, so it means that Singapore is the “best of the rest”.

To what extent is success in Singaporean sports “foreign”? For that you have to answer three questions:

1. Are the athletes foreign?
2. Is the infrastructure foreign?
3. Are the coaches foreign?

In the last 20 years, the three great powerhouses of world soccer are Spain, Brazil and France. (Apologies to Argentina, Italy and Germany who are great powers during this period, but have never reached the heights of the other three). They all have had different approaches to success, and all of them have involved foreigners.

First, we have Brazil. Brazil probably has the greatest system of producing players. They have the biggest slums in the world, and a lot of people grow up in those slums and grow up playing football all day. They also had a fanatic following for football. There was a great system for developing talent, and Brazil exports a lot of football talent. If you’re top talent, like Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Romario or Ronaldinho, then you get to play for a big club in Europe: by coincidence, all four have played for Barcelona at some point. Probably none of them would have been world beaters if they had played in Brazil all their lives. All of them honed their skills in the best leagues in the world. A few Brazillian players have migrated to other countries, like Engmar Gonclaves who represented Singapore (but not as successfully as say Alexandr Duric or even Agu Casmir). But you also have Deco representing Portugal, Eduardo representing Croatia and Marcos Senna representing Spain.

Then, we have France. France is probably the one that has the most indigenous talent. But the great team that won a World Cup was notable for the high proportion of immigrants or sons of immigrants. Zidane’s parents were from Algeria. Thierry Henry’s were from Guadelope. Vieira was born in Senegal. Lilian Thuram was born in Guadelope. Youri Djorkaeff had Polish and Armenian parents. Bixente Lizarazu was a Basque. The success of this national team helped the immigrants to France establish themselves as an integral part of the nation. But the system was undoubtedly French. Their coach, Aime Jacquet was part of the great St Etienne team. France already had a pretty good youth system. In particular, they also had two slums which produced a great number of footballers. Marseilles produced Cantona and Zidane. Paris produced Thierry Henry.

Spain is another interesting story. The core of the great national side which has won three consecutive major tournaments are the great Real Madrid and Barcelona teams. Both of them have different approaches to talents. Barcelona’s system was transplanted from the time that Johann Cryuff went there. He helped to set up the Barcelona academy, and 10 years after he left that club as a player, he became a manager who helped Barcelona become a great club by putting together the “Dream team” of the 90s, which had great talents like Ronald Koeman, Pep Guardiola, José Mari Bakero, Michael Laudrup, Romário, and Hristo Stoichkov. Later on, their youth training system would nurture and shape stars like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas.


How do we produce the athletes? This is one of the biggest issues of the foreign talent debate in sports. Athletes are produced under extreme conditions. One way to do it is that you have to pick out your kids early and groom them. You need to have a lot of parents who are interested in sporting achievement. You need to have a lot of kids who are willing to go down this route. And most importantly, you need to be able to pay the price of failure. It is not possible for people to have a sterling academic career and be able to train enough to become athletes at the same time. You have to understand that for every athlete who succeeds, there will be hundreds more who are comparatively mediocre. The above average ones will become journeymen. The rest of them will just have to find a way to fail gracefully. The crux of the matter is not what we do with the stars. It is what we do with the failures.

The life span of an athlete is short. And after they retire from the game, they have to find a second career. Transitioning to a second career is not easy, especially in a very economically competitive place like Singapore. The tragic post-career plights of Paul Gascoigne, Garrincha and Justin Fashanu should tell you something about how treacherous the road is. Perhaps it will be easier for the football stars today who earn top money in the top leagues of Europe. But even people like Gary Speed who managed to become the Wales manager for a short period of time will find that their personal life is not going oh so well.

The way to circumvent this is that we cherry pick the best from China for table tennis, and the best from Indonesia for badminton, and then we groom them. In a sense, Li Jiawei’s talent was partially developed on Singapore soil. It was in Singapore that she made the transition from being a promising talent to a world class ping pong player. But there will be a lot of other talents who do not make the cut, the success rate will not be 100%. And that’s when we will have to deal with those failures. But the failure rate will not be as high as if we were to set up our own youth system.

The other cost to the system is that the training regimes are usually very harsh and cruel. This is true for sports like gymnastics and table tennis. Less so for football, which is supposed to be fun, although it takes up all your time as well. Jing Junhong, Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu – all these people have had harsh childhoods. You don’t know what sort of psychological damage gets inflicted upon all those people. What they had to go through, you don’t really know if you want to put your kids through all that.

Then there is the question of who’s going to pay their salaries. OK, you think that a fraction of a million dollars is a lot of money to be paying people to win Olympic medals, until you realize that Yaya Toure gets paid around the same amount of money EVERY WEEK.

For great spectator sports, it’s not that hard to use all the gate receipts and corporate sponsorships, and private wealthy sponsors to fund development. I think one reason why Singapore is relatively successful in football when compared to our neighbours is that we’re able to sustain a better league, and better players. But S-League is hardly able to support itself, and eventually it will have to be merged into the M-league.


The infrastructure – I think this is where Singapore has done well. But this is the relatively easy thing to do. Hardware is usually easier to achieve than software. Just build stadiums, training facilities and schools.


The coaching is not easy to achieve. In fact, it is one of the most crucial parts of the equation. In football, this has been recognized. One of the most significant matches in football history was Italy vs Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, when it was shown that a team with the better system could beat the team with vastly superior players. One reason European football is superior to most other places is the superior coaching. We have imported coaches from China as well as their training methods.

What is Sports Really About?

A lot of people are talking about how to increase sporting excellence in Singapore. Well it all depends on what we want. Do we want the prestige of the Olympic medals or top rankings? To me, that’s not very important. I don’t think it’s worth the time and trouble of the extreme methods of what China puts some of its kids through. If West Africa is famous for churning out a lot of good footballers, it might not reflect well on its society: it means that there is so much poverty that football becomes the only meaningful thing to do. Do we want that?

On the other hand, we have to go back to what sports was originally about. What it meant in the first place. At my old workplace, we used to go to a community centre every week to play some sports. It was a way of socializing, letting off steam and having something to do. The “sporting spirit” means that you’re just activity partners, collaborating in keeping yourselves fit and having fun. Then as time goes by, it escalates. First into rivalry and competition, then into war. Sports becomes an arms race. It stops being fun in itself, and it only becomes fun when you sacrifice everything to reach a ridiculous height. It may have started off as a celebration of a human spirit, but then it becomes a joyless task. It turns into tribal war by proxy. The warped morals of sports today is no more than a reflection of the warped morals of our society: success at all costs. You have to see what’s happening today for what it is: Thousands of people, many sacrificing a normal childhood, in order to become the best sportsmen.

There are people who enjoy the sport, and take it in the right spirit: people like Usain Bolt who – assuming that he’s not on steroids or anything – are just naturally talented and work hard but are not killing themselves, that kind of sports training I can condone. The China factories where the people literally give up their lives to be the best at something – just for glory, and just for a medal. (By giving up their lives, I mean, to live like a monk, forgo everything else and go through a harsh training regime) That is too much. And yet I’m sure the sharper ones amongst you would notice that Usain Bolt has probably also given up a lot. I suppose how hard you want to push is a matter of degree. There is no fine line. At some point, you’d suddenly realise that it’s no longer fun, that you’re basically a small part of an army, that all your happiness is being sacrificed for the sake of glory – I don’t want that. Someone else can keep those medals. I don’t want to do it to earn my nation bragging rights.

Sports is a lot of things. I feel that football is a beautiful game, and it exists for reasons other than glory. In fact, some of the really harsh games – the ones where the training is brutal, the ones which involve sheer physical attributes like strength, speed, flexibility, endurance, rather than thinking and solving puzzles like team games – can be about beauty and the apex of the human spirit. But the price that people have to pay, going into that training day in and day out would be too much for me. The relentless drive towards a very narrowly defined perfection just feels very suffocating to me.

I'm not really against sports. I once managed to finish a marathon so I know what it's like to feel proud of yourself, that you can push yourself very far, to a level that you never thought possible. But for me the sky is not the limit. There is a limit to everything, and the limit comes when it dawns on you that you shouldn't be paying out a higher price than what that glory is worth.

Grassroot sports vs Elite sports

There's this article that makes the argument that sporting excellence is a reflection of how much a government is willing to invest in its own people. That's a very nice argument, but to me, there is still a difference between nurturing sports excellence at the highest level and nurturing a good sports culture amongst your own people.

The other aspect of this argument is – should we develop sports at the grassroots level or at the elite level. First, consider the England national football team. It’s often been said that England suffers during international tournaments because the EPL is the most brutal in the world. But that ignores the fact that the people who play the most matches in Europe are Xavi and Iniesta, who are also the people who play the most passes per game. The reason of fatigue is not convincing.

Some people attribute the reason for England’s persistent underwhelming performance at international level to how the English league forces the English players to focus more on club football instead of international football. This ignores the fact that the European countries which do well in the tournaments are also the ones with excellent leagues – Germany, Spain and Italy are also doing well, aren’t they? Another possible reason is that English referees are more lenient, and the officiating does not protect people well against injuries. There is a bit of truth to this, seeing as it is a lot of English players are often injured. There are so many English players who, because of injuries, never found their full potential. Jonathan Woodgate. Ledley King. Michael Owen. Dean Ashton. Jack Wilshire.

But a more important reason is that in the English Premier League, there are too many foreigners. In the Italian, German and Spanish leagues, most of the players are still homegrown. For some reason, the English Premier League has the lowest proportion of home-grown players amongst the major leagues.

Why is this so? Some people put it down to the training, and skill is not as highly prized as physicality in the lower age groups. But that means that all those people who do well for England in the U-20 / U-23 / U-18 competitions are the ones who grew up more quickly? That’s nuts.

Some people put it down to the fact that English players command a higher premium when it comes to price. That is in turn probably due to the fact that English players are rare, which means there is a vicious cycle at work. English players are rare, and therefore they command a higher transfer price. Because they command a higher price, the English clubs actually shun them, which leads to more talented Englishmen dropping out of the sport.

Another possibility is that due to the financial constraints that the clubs work under, they are more apt to be more sensitive to price. English clubs are not poor, but they are probably very susceptible to going broke. The number of clubs which have flirted with financial troubles upon going down to the second division is higher than other countries. Wimbledon. Ipswich. Coventry. Leeds. Leicester. Charlton. West Ham. Derby. And last but not least Portsmouth. Maybe it is only in England that there are two divisions worth of clubs who could plausibly consider themselves big names, but only one premier division. Maybe England has the toughest second tier in the whole of Europe, and they have a situation where all three clubs which get relegated every year are medium sized clubs. Therefore these clubs absolutely have to save money on players. Therefore these clubs absolutely have to fill their ranks with foreigners. Anyway, look at this article. It makes the point that sporting greatness should reflect the degree to which the government is willing to nurture and develop talent. The EPL has proven to be very bad for the English team. It was good for them for a few years: the short boost that they provided to English football resulted in a fairly decent Euro 96 team. After that came the so-called “golden generation” where the bad attitudes of “star” players like Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard and Terry contributed to the fall of the England team. And after that the talent generation machine dried up altogether.

So I think you can see that the English Premier League is a cautionary tale where you can well see that success at the club level can be bought, and you can place your biggest English football clubs as among the best in the world. But at the same time it can have detrimental effects on sports at the local grassroots level.

So What About Singapore?

So, how shall I judge the sporting achievements of Singapore in light of all the arguments I had earlier raised?

First, are we good at nurturing home-grown talent? I think that Singapore is putting effort into nurturing sporting talent. This has always been a big problem in Asian countries, where parents are always aspiring for their kids to do well. They would always want their kids to take the safe route, the easy route to money. It’s only in a country which has millions of peasants like China where you can build athlete factories. You might note that Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have a lot of athletes doing well in the intensely competitive sports. Football is another matter: football is something that favours well to do countries because football is funded by gate receipts.

So Singapore is like the wealthier Asian countries because of the kiasu parent syndrome, and we’re already at a big disadvantage. But in spite of that, I think that we do build good facilities for our sportsmen. The downside is that Singapore is getting really crowded and children don’t really have proper playgrounds. This is not good for the development of children.

Second, are we neglecting the development of home grown talent? I will first answer this question for football. For football, I don’t think so. We have done well in the regional competitions since the S League has allowed us to unearth much more talent than if we were merely to send a team to the Malaysia Cup every year. It’s a good system in that sense. Not so good in the sense that it probably won’t sustain itself financially. We managed to get a good coach in Abramovich and hold on to him. We naturalise players from the Balkans and from Africa, but we have produced people like Noor Alam Shah, Lionel Lewis and Daniel Bennett. I think we’re OK. For the other sports, we aren’t going to shut out our own home grown talents to accommodate the foreigners. The foreigners raise the bar, and it might turn off a few Singaporeans (but we wouldn’t want those Singaporeans to be representing us anyway) but it has spurred the local Singaporeans to greater achievement, and you can’t say that’s a bad thing.

Third, is that sporting glory worth it? The thing is: do you want those athlete factories to be set up in Singapore? My answer, in case it hasn’t already been obvious is, no. If I had kids, I would not want those kids to grow up the way that Feng Tianwei or Li Jiawei or Wang Yuegu grew up, smacking that plastic ball 18 hours a day. I just don’t believe in that kind of sacrifice for that kind of glory. It’s an arrangement that pleases both parties. We bask in their reflected glory (since we don’t really consider them Singaporean) and they have a chance to win medals, which they wouldn’t have had back home in China. If they win, I would congratulate them. In this sense, the question of whether I would have wanted “real” Singaporeans to win those medals is somewhat irrelevant. I would not have wanted the “real” Singaporeans to make the necessary sacrifices in order to get those medals, and therefore those medals would not have meant anything to me. I’m just a little sad that we spent a lot of money on buying those medals, and that money would have been better spent on other things.

It's a shame that Feng Tianwei is bearing the brunt of Singaporeans' resentment of the people who are crowding them out of this island. I think that Singaporeans feel that the quality of their lives has gone down, and that they feel this has to do with being crowded off the island, and they see these medals as legitimising the idea of "foreign talent". You can't really blame them for not being too thrilled.

But in a bigger sense, there is another reason why Singaporeans should be cheering on Feng Tianwei. I know this slightly contradicts what I said but people should be happy whenever they win a medal. I complained that the cost of winning a medal is very high, but I never said that it wasn't a good thing in its own right. By not honouring Feng Tianwei, they're getting themselves used to the idea that an Olympic medal doesn't mean anything. If one day a "real" Singaporean mounts the podium, I won't be too surprised if they won't be cheering either, because if they were to cheer too loudly, they would suddenly be hypocrites. Then because of this initial negative reaction to Singapore winning a medal, the Olympics medal would be tainted, and that would be a shame. Look at Tan Howe Liang. I'm not surprised that he went on to languish in obscurity. Singaporeans have this self-loathing attitude where they don't celebrate their own achievements. That's the real shame of the Feng Tianwei affair.


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