SEPT 4 — As I have said before in this column, I am a big fan of Joseph Schooling.
When he won the 50 Metres Butterfly at the Rio Olympics in 2016, he did the impossible. A young outsider from a country with absolutely no history of winning gold medals in anything, let alone prominent medals in major events, beat the absolutely legendary Michael Phelps on the world’s biggest stage.
In that moment, he brought glory to Singapore and also showed a generation what was possible.
Most Singaporeans who watched that moment must clearly remember watching him move, so swiftly, and just cheering him on to victory.
I did it from my living room and I will never forget the immense pride and joy it gave me — to hear my national anthem, to see my fellow Singaporean achieve excellence. I have never met Schooling, but I am grateful to him, and I am proud of him.
After all, it is hard to overstate how significant his feat was. Not just for Singapore but Asia in general.
Schooling’s performance wasn’t just good for a Singaporean — it was historic. The amount of training someone needs to put in to compete at that level is extraordinary. It’s an entire childhood and life devoted to a single moment.
But Schooling went beyond that moment.
Propelled to the status of a national mega star he would continue to perform at a very high level. At the 2017 SEA Games, he won gold in all his events. At the 2018 Asian Games, he won two gold medals — half of Singapore’s total golds at the event. These are not minor feats.
However, his performance internationally dipped towards 2019. Schooling faltered at the 2019 Fina World Aquatic Championships and he failed to make it out of the heats in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
At this point, Singapore authorities decided that he could no longer defer his national military service and in 2022 he began his two years of service. To me, this decision was always short-sighted.
In my opinion, by representing Singapore and competing on the world stage Schooling was already doing the nation a great service.
At 26/27, he is at his physical peak and it would perhaps do greater service to the nation if he was supported to achieve his absolute best while in his prime as an athlete.
One to two years of weak performance after years of being exceptional is hardly a reason to stymie a promising career.
If the “barter” of swimming to serve his nation could not be considered then perhaps his military service could have been deferred until the end of his career or perhaps met through a series of shorter stints.
Two years of military service during your best competitive years is a major drag on any athlete’s career.
If we need explanations, it can be argued his weaker performances came during the disruption of Covid-19. The added pressure of having to keep performing to maintain National Service deferments can’t have been helpful and in 2021, Schooling also lost his father who was clearly a huge part of his training and life to cancer.
So, with all this and the fact that unlike his peers at the top of world swimming he had to serve in the military while training for major events, it seems rather absurd that he is now being threatened with the end of his career.
Last week, it emerged that he had admitted to taking cannabis while in Hanoi. This, despite the fact that Schooling passed a blood test for drugs but by admitting to taking the drug he faces strict censure as Singapore bans its nationals from taking cannabis overseas and as a result of his admission, Schooling will no longer be granted leave to compete and train for swimming events and this will effectively end his career.
When he finishes National Service, he will be nearly 30 and without competing or training during those years it will be virtually impossible for him to compete at a high level again.
This is an enormous shame.
A man who brought happiness and glory to Singapore now faces seeing his career end in censure and disgrace. That is not to say Schooling should face no action if he consumed the drug in Vietnam where it is illegal.
Fina, the world swimming body, also proscribes the taking of cannabis. As an athlete he should not have been taking the drug but in this case a fine and some minor disciplinary measures should have been enough.
Losing the right to train will end his career and is that a punishment that fits the crime? As we see laws change around the world, we know that many adults smoke and the trend around the world has been towards liberalisation.
Young people make mistakes, all people make mistakes. Schooling admitted to making a mistake though he had actually passed the physical drug test. Why use this mistake to take away this man’s career, passion — and fundamentally his life?
But, here more than Schooling — I think this disproportionate punishment hurts the rest of us more. To see a national hero torn down, to deny us the exhilaration, the joy, the patriotic pride of his victories does all of us a greater disservice.
It just seems like bureaucracy at its worst. Petty-minded, obsessed with narrow rules — at the expense of the big picture; the joy this man has brought and still could bring and the end of a talented person’s passion and career.
Frankly, it is also ugly that we have so little love for those who lift us and serve us. I am embarrassed. I hope sanity prevails and he is allowed to compete and given the support he needs instead — to learn and to do better.
For now, all I can do is to remain unabashedly a fan girl. Schooling! Schooling! Schooling!
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.