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Commentary: It’s time to redefine what success means for Singapore athletes at the Asian Games

SINGAPORE: The deafening cheers in the stadium, the fluttering of national flags and the glittering medals. At elite sports events such as the recently concluded Asian Games in Hangzhou, when an athlete wins a medal, it’s not just their victory; it’s the triumph of a nation as a whole.

Recall how Joseph Schooling was feted like a king after he won Singapore’s first gold medal at the Olympics in 2016. Recall too how Shanti Pereira was celebrated earlier this month after ending Singapore’s 49-year wait for an Asian Games gold medal in athletics.

It would not be a stretch to say that medals dominate the thoughts of many: After all, the numerical scorecard is a vivid indicator of a nation’s success on the sports world stage. Each country’s rank or position on the medal tally table is determined first by the number of gold medals, followed by silver medals and then bronze medals. While gold medals are highly valued, every medal that athletes win counts.

When a sprinter lines up on the blocks, a badminton player steps onto a court, or a swimmer dives off the platform, they become ambassadors of their countries. Hence, at the individual level, it is inevitable that their performances are judged by the colour of the medal that they win or do not win. Besides, this is the nature of sports competitions; athletes compete to achieve a podium finish.

But is the medal count an effective way to assess sporting success? This question was raised as Singapore, with three gold, six silver and seven bronze medals, finished 20th out of the 45 nations that took part in the Asian Games this year.

Singapore’s Shanti Pereira (women’s 200m), Maximilian Maeder (men’s formula kite) and Ryan Lo (men’s ILCA 7) won gold. Team Singapore swimmers – who won six medals, including two golds, at the 2018 edition – managed only one silver in Hangzhou, courtesy of Teong Tzen Wei in the men’s 50m butterfly. They also attained nine fourth-place finishes.


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From the international multi-sports competition perspective, the medal tally provides a clear and objective summary for the public to know how each country fared in the Games.

We can examine how Singapore performed this year compared to the past four Asian Games by focusing our attention on the medal count for the top three countries, the top six Southeast Asian countries, and Hong Kong, which has a population size that is closest to Singapore and with similar socioeconomic environment and strong emphasis on educational pursuit and excellence.

China has topped all five editions of the Games and is clearly the powerhouse in Asia with its high achievements in gold, silver, bronze and total medals. In terms of gold medals, South Korea ranked second, followed by Japan in third position in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Asian Games. In the 2018 and 2023 Asian Games, Japan overtook South Korea. These three countries won the bulk of the available medals.

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