WASHINGTON DC: “Are the days of Wong Peng Soon back?” was the curious cry of many Singaporeans after 20-year-old Yeo Jia Min shocked the World No. 1, Akane Yamaguchi of Japan, in the second round of the 2019 Badminton World Federation World Championships.
While it is premature to conclude from this big upset of hers, there is one thing the nation can be absolutely certain of: We love a David versus Goliath underdog sports story.
And probably more than most other nations, too.
THE MAKING OF THE UNDERDOG
When Singapore-born-and-bred Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the ecstasy that engulfed the nation was multi-layered.
Many Singaporeans empathise with the financial and personal sacrifices of Joseph’s parents, Colin and May Schooling. Joseph Schooling was 21 when he stood on top of the Olympic podium, but it took a journey of at least 15 years to get there.
It was a massive gamble to send young Joseph to the United States on his own to train with and go up against some of the world’s best for a shot at Olympic glory.
The enormity of what he achieved was artfully captured in an unprecedented three-way silver medal tie between Michael Phelps (US), Chad Le Clos (South Africa) and Laszlo Cseh (Hungary).
The odds-defying triumph rekindled hopes of another win on the world sporting stage in the hearts of Singaporeans. Yet, why are we not seeing more of these gritty world-beaters in Singapore sports?
THE CURIOUS CASE OF SINGAPORE BADMINTON
Singapore has chosen to rely on the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme rather heavily for what is often widely perceived as a quick medal-fix for Singapore sports on the global sporting stage.
The scheme most notably yielded a table tennis silver medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. It was Singapore’s first Olympic medal since Tan Howe Liang’s weightlifting silver at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games. Yet it sparked more debate than cheer.
Table tennis and badminton were the two sports that leaned heavily on the Foreign Talent Scheme but the scheme in badminton was completely abandoned by Rio 2016.
Turning to the Foreign Talent Scheme for badminton has always been a controversial move. It was a vision that the ever-vibrant badminton community in Singapore never quite caught on to as well.
At the grassroots level, the appetite for the sport is evident from community centres to the exuberant school sports badminton scene (at least in the 1990s to 2000s), where the former local greats from Wong Shoon Keat, Irene Wong, Hamid Khan to Wee Choon Seng have all dedicated their lives to coaching in local schools.
Stepping into Wong Shoon Keat’s little shop at the former Singapore Badminton Hall on Guillemard Road always served up a dose of inspiration for young local shuttlers to believe he or she too could win a coveted SEA Games gold medal as Mr Wong did in 1983.
And perhaps, more.
After all, before China started gaining a stronghold in the international badminton scene, during the days of Wong Peng Soon, Southeast Asian nations were (and still are) a force to reckon with in the sport.
CURRENTLY TRENDING: UNCOMMON GIANT SLAYERS OF BADMINTON
The Chinese women, in particular, cemented an indestructible status in the sport from the turn of the 21st century. Winning consecutive Uber Cups, World Championships and Olympic gold medals, an all-Chinese women's singles final was also the usual order of the day at major badminton events.
But today, that Great Wall of China in women's badminton is but convincingly dismantled.
The World Championship’s women’s singles gold medal has now eluded China for six consecutive years. At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, China went home empty-handed in the women's singles event - a sight that would be unthinkable a decade ago.
It was the result of a consistent effort by a group of “Chinese-slayers” in women’s singles hailing from all around the world: Spain, Thailand, India and Japan.
Born between 1993 and 1995, they each hold a unique style of play, which brought a refreshing revitalisation in women’s badminton. The absence of a deep history or support for badminton in many of their nations also turned them into inspiring trailblazers.
The most remarkable unifying factor in this group of players is their emergence as a teenage “protégé”, with each carrying an uncommon story.
Carolina Marin (2014, 2015, 2018 World Champion) is from Huelva, a small town in Spain of barely 150,000 inhabitants. She was dancing flamenco as a child before she decided to play badminton seriously when coach Fernando Rivas spotted her at 14, and then nurtured her into Spain’s first World Champion in badminton by 21.
In Thailand, Ratchanok Intanon grew up in a sweets factory in a small Thai province. She became Thailand’s first and the youngest World Champion at 18 back in 2013, and is still a definite medal contender at next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
Badminton legends South Korean Park Joo-bong and India’s Puella Gopichand are known to have raised the standards of badminton in Japan and India respectively.
As former successful players they became innovative coaches with a good personal touch, and took the sport to another level in their countries.
READ: Badminton: Singapore’s Yeo wins women’s title at Hyderabad Open, compatriot Loh finishes runner-up in men’s singles
They developed their teenage protégés into historic World Champions for their nations - Nozomi Okuhara (in 2017) and P V Sindhu (in 2019).
TOO LATE, TOO LITTLE FOR YEO?
Where does that leave Singapore’s Yeo Jia Min?
For the discerning fans of badminton, Yeo’s recent emergence no longer comes as a “shocker”. The badminton women’s singles event is anybody’s game in this day.
And for Yeo, there is a lot of catching up to do to threaten the current class of giant slayers. The 20-year-old was defeated by Intanon 17-21, 11-21 in the quarterfinals.
There is also a long way to go before Singapore badminton can reach those remarkable heights set by Wong Peng Soon during the country’s pre-independence era.
Perhaps what Singapore needs to ask then is this: If they can do it, why not us?
In badminton, despite deep benches in China and Indonesia, Denmark with a population of just over 5 million inhabitants is longstanding proof that a nation does not need a huge population or a deep talent pool to develop a world champion or build a world champion team. (They have successfully done both in badminton.)
And there could still be late bloomers, too.
Retired Dane, Tine Baun, is a great case in point where she was often the only real threat to China’s women’s singles dominance when she was in her late-twenties.
All of these require an unyielding dedication and commitment from their national governing bodies in nurturing and developing talent from their own backyard, despite the odds.
And like the Schoolings, a persistent belief in a giant-slaying sporting future for their child, and to just take the risk.
There is no short cut. And if not now, when?
Jan Lin Lee was formerly Press Officer at the Badminton World Federation before joining the Olympic Channel as Commissioning Editor of Originals and branded content. She is now a Sports Film and Documentaries Producer based in the US