Singapore sports 'didn't roll over and die' amid COVID-19 battering: SportSG CEO

Chia Han Keong
·7-min read
Patrons participating in Garmin Sports Sessions at the Singapore Sports Hub with safe-distancing measures in place. (PHOTO: Singapore Sports Hub)
Patrons participating in Garmin Sports Sessions at the Singapore Sports Hub with safe-distancing measures in place. (PHOTO: Singapore Sports Hub)

SINGAPORE — In a year when the world was plunged into a health crisis, global sports has not been spared of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with events cancelled in being unable to safely host large crowds.

Yet, despite being battered by the coronavirus, the sports industry in Singapore has tried hard to reinvent and reposition itself to be ready for new opportunities, according to Lim Teck Yin, chief executive officer of Sport Singapore (SportSG).

In an interview with Yahoo News Singapore at the SportSG office last Thursday (24 December), the 58-year-old reflected on a year in which the local sports scene was plunged into a battle for survival, as mass participation events became impossible to be safely organised amid the raging pandemic.

“The most important point I want to make is that sport in 2020 didn’t just roll over and die,” he said.

“Towards the end of 2020, with all the unfortunate experiences that people have gone through, I think we are looking at what we have learnt and asking ourselves how we can create new opportunities, even as everybody hopes for the old normal to return. It’s a wake-up call for transformation.

“We always say sport nurtures resilience, tenacity and fighting spirit – you get knocked down, you pick yourself up again. And I think that was what was on display throughout the year.”

Struggles to revamp, stay afloat amid uncertain year

Certainly, there were tough and painful moments, as sports businesses struggled to revamp and stay afloat at the same time.

Singapore has tried to help the sector cope, with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth unveiling a $50 million Sports Resilience Package to help private sports academies and clubs, private league operators and facility operators receive financial assistance for their operating expenses.

SportSG has also launched a virtual sports club platform, ActiveSG Circle, to encourage the sports industry to create home-based sports activities and programmes for Singaporeans to stay active.

Initiatives were set up, such as the Blended Initiative Grant which supports event management companies, event organisers and private academies and clubs in the development of events that combine physical and virtual participation, dubbed the “phygital” format.

While some in the industry will unfortunately be unable to sustain through the pandemic and exit the market, Lim feels that the stronger players of the industry have realised that the way forward is to “pivot to digital”, and finding creative ways to deliver their products to sports consumers that can continue to be viable when the COVID-19 pandemic dies down.

“People are recognising that Singaporeans’ comfort with technology means that there are new ways to drive the sports business model,” he explained.

“It's inevitable that people are going to miss what they used to enjoy. But there’s no point sitting down and lamenting what we've lost. The key is to look forward to what new opportunities we could be afforded; we may find new ways of fan engagement even as they’re sitting at home, watching the live sports events on their TV or computer screens.

“We may not fully replicate what we used to experience, at least for the next one or two years. But in the meantime, we will discover new formats, we will discover new engagement platforms, and we will still have fun.”

Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore.
Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore. (PHOTO: Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee/Action Images via Reuters

Lim cited the recent Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM), which departed from its traditional race formats by going virtual, incorporating augmented reality (AR) for participants to experience running past Singapore’s landmarks even on their treadmills.

By setting up a virtual running club, SCSM managed to garner over 100,000 online participants over a few months, as well as about 12,000 for its grand finale event in which they clocked over 100,000 kilometres to raise $1 million for charity.

“The online AR runs were interesting new experiences that we could still enjoy with the close circle of friends that we have. And most importantly, the sponsors stood a chance to remain committed,” Lim said.

“So when we get back to to normal marathon running, when we’re out there back in the streets, will we still capitalise on online engagement? The answer should be yes – you are able to reach much further. It will be worth paying attention to how fan engagement and participant engagement is going to evolve and expand very quickly.”

Athletes’ performances affected by lack of competition

Ultimately though, COVID-19 has still affected the sporting world adversely, especially among elite athletes, who have seen their competitions being cancelled, postponed or reorganised in unfamiliar formats.

In Singapore, most of the sports competitions were cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and have just taken tentative steps back with the resumption of the Singapore Premier League in October, as well as the ONE Championship fight events being held with a small crowd of 250 at the Indoor Stadium.

Meanwhile, sports training remains disrupted as groups of up to eight athletes are permitted to train together, and cohorting arrangements – no participant changes among groups without observing a 14-day cooling period – advised for contact sports with prolonged grappling.

All these regulations have put a strain on athletes striving for excellence in their sports, and the lack of tough competition has also blunted their sharpness, Lim admitted.

“The athletes are all looking forward to 2021, when we obviously have the Olympics, the Paralympics, the SEA Games and ASEAN Para Games. I know the athletes are training very hard for those events, but generally, without competition at the moment, we might expect a bit of a dampener on their performances,” he said.

While he also hopes to bring back regular sports events in the calendar – such as the ASEAN Basketball League, the HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens, the Singapore Badminton Open and the Netball Nations Cup – he is more confident on the return of mass participation sport events.

In fact, he revealed that sports participation numbers have already gone back to pre-COVID-19 levels, given that the public’s awareness of the need to be healthy and fit amid the pandemic has gone up.

INFOGRAPHIC: Sport Singapore
INFOGRAPHIC: Sport Singapore

“The challenge is to sustain this and continue to improve the quality of participation – the duration and the variety of activities,” he said. “We have to think of how we can re-order the management of the facilities and services in a way that allows the maximum number of people to benefit from it.

“We should also try to facilitate opening up additional fields so that people can use them to play sports, and to be able to do so responsibly.”

Spirit remains positive among sports fraternity

Amid the uncertainties of the sports industry and the disappointment of cancelled sports events over the past year, Lim is gratified that the spirit among the sports fraternity remains positive despite the setbacks.

When asked about a favourite moment of 2020, he recalled an evening when a call came to ask for volunteers from Team Nila – SportSG’s volunteerism arm – to help with face mask distribution at the community centres on short notice.

“Overnight, one call generated about 800 volunteers who showed up the next day, and when I went to visit them, they were in good spirits and made it clear that they wanted to contribute,” he said.

“I've met quite a few of the temporary staff that we’ve hired to help us with our operations in the sport centres. They are coaches and administrators whose jobs are on hold, but they were all in good spirits, accepting that this is something that they would have to go through, but all confident that they will emerge again.

“So what gets me most this year was people demonstrating that, as a country, we could remain united working together during the pandemic. They continue to, as I have said, not roll over and die.”

Next April will see Lim into his 10th year as SportSG CEO, and while there has been no decision on him moving on, he is sanguine that there will be “very capable leaders” ready to step forward if needed.

The former SEA Games waterpolo gold medallist does have an ambition left to achieve, though.

“I’ve always want to get myself certified as a coach. I want to get into waterpolo coaching. That’s something I should have an interest in.”

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