At this month's Olympics, Singapore will be represented by 25 athletes - the joint-highest number since independence (Singapore also sent 25 athletes to the Beijing 2008 Games). At last year's SEA Games, a bumper crop of 749 flew the Singapore flag on home soil, while at the quadrennial Asian Games two years ago, it was yet another record turnout- 227 athletes, up from 159 in 2010.
The trend looks set to continue as Singapore invests more in its sporting infrastructure, such as the $40 million pumped into the Sports Excellence (Spex) Scholarship and the $1.5 billion set aside for the Sports Facilities Master Plan.
With more devoting their best years to the pursuit of a perfect swim or a flawless forehand, one wonders if it is time for more to be done to help this unique tribe prepare for life outside the arena.
To be fair, there are already several schemes in place to help athletes make the transition to life after sport. Sport Singapore's (SportSG) Sports Excellence Business (spexBusiness) Network, started in 2013, matches national athletes with prospective employers, in the form of internships or job placements. The programme currently has 33 corporate partners from 19 industries, including DBS Bank, food and beverage company Sakae Holdings and environmental solutions provider Hyflux.
Deloitte Singapore, one of the 33 spexBusiness Network partners, separately collaborated with Netball Singapore to offer employment and education opportunities to the nation's netballers. The Football Association of Singapore also started a career scheme in 2014, where eligible players who apply for upgrading courses can get subsidies of up to 50 per cent.
More than 81 athletes from 27 sports have secured either internships or full-time jobs through these schemes. Former national netball captain Micky Lin, who retired in May, is now a digital marketing assistant manager at Deloitte Singapore. There, she works alongside several Team Singapore athletes, including Derek Wong (badminton), Rachel Yang (athletics) and Wynne Tang (floorball).
The efforts to help athletes move on after their sporting careers were expanded when Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu launched the spexEntrepreneurship programme in January. The initiative partners the Action Community for Entrepreneurship to help enterprising athletes set up their own businesses, including pairing them with mentors and providing subsidies for office space rental.
Swimmer Tao Li and gymnast Lim Heem Wei are among those who could benefit from this, having set up their own schools since retiring. Tao, a two-time Asian Games gold medallist, said: "When I started my swim school last year, I had to ask many people for help. I know I can coach, but there are many things to learn, like setting your company's direction, writing business plans and managing the cash flow. So this programme can help in that sense."
These schemes are augmented by the fact that athletes make attractive employees, said Mr Kannan Chettiar, managing director of local human resource consultancy Avvanz. "Athletes bring special traits to the table, like tenacity, resilience, teamwork and being goal-oriented. Not many people have the discipline to wake up at 6am to train," he said.
The 10,000 Olympians that international human resource firm Adecco has helped find work for illustrates just how sought-after athletes are.
To Mr James Walton, head of Deloitte South-east Asia's sports business service line, it is a win-win situation. "High performance is a state of mind and it translates into the corporate world too - high-performing athletes are generally also high-performing employees." His company has hired more than 40 former and current national athletes.
But Mr Chettiar pointed out that athletes must possess the requisite qualifications and skill set for the job in question. That is why, beyond job placements, the authorities could perhaps look at stepping up efforts to equip athletes with academic and vocational qualifications. After all, in the pursuit of sporting excellence, many athletes either take gap years or defer their studies to train full-time. This is to catch up with their foreign rivals, many of whom train full-time and compete professionally.
A robust model which allows athletes to upgrade themselves after retirement embodies a kind of safety net, one which could allay their concerns about choosing sport over education at a young age.
One way this could be done is through meaningful tie-ups with educational institutions. A working example is the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) in England, which offers its members four sports-related undergraduate courses via partnerships with local universities. The courses include sports journalism, sports science and physiotherapy. Applicants can also apply for bursaries. In addition, the PFA offers financial support of up to £1,500 (S$2,670) a year to those who undertake nationally recognised qualifications that do not fall under its offerings.
SportSG's Spex Education scheme is similar. Its partnership with institutes of higher learning offers flexible admission criteria and is a step in the right direction.
Currently, this is open only to carded national athletes, of whom there are around 1,600. To be carded, one must be nominated by a national sports association.
Singapore Sports School has a similar project with Republic Polytechnic and Nanyang Technological University for its students.
But perhaps it is time to widen the scope, especially if the sports scene gets more competitive. Ms Lin said: "It comes down to logistics and manpower constraints, but having this sort of support structure (for more athletes) will definitely be beneficial."
Of course, getting more companies on board the spex- Business Network, as SportSG has done over the years, is also critical.
It sends a strong message: that corporate Singapore recognises and values the achievements and sacrifices of national athletes. In the long run, beefing up the support structure for athletes will benefit Singapore sport as it encourages more to take the road less travelled.
The top concern among most parents whose children are student-athletes is that their kids will be short-changed compared with their peers who take up sport only on a recreational basis.
They would be heartened and more willing to support their child's sporting endeavours if they see that there is a comparable - if not more promising - life after sports.
In the end, the onus is on the athletes to make the most of the opportunities available, and to understand that the glory and headlines do not come without sacrifice. But as more choose this monastic life, as more devote their best years to doing the nation proud, it is apt that as much is done to prepare athletes for life after their time in the arena as during their competitive years.
Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/sport/career-support-after-sports by Chua Siang Yee