From ‘Why the big disparity in cash rewards?’, 5 Sept 2012, ST Forum
(Shanta Danielle Arul):…It saddens me to hear that while both (Laurentia) Tan and paddler Feng Tianwei won individual bronze medals at competitions of the highest sporting level, Feng was awarded a $250,000 cash prize while Tan got only $50,000.
During the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008, when swimmer Yip Pin Xiu won a gold medal for Singapore in the 50m backstroke, she was first awarded $100,000 – a tenth of the $1 million an Olympic gold medal would have earned. This was later doubled to $200,000.
Why should there be such a disparity in rewards for these athletes?
We yearn for Singaporeans to do us proud on the international stage, and champions like Tan give us that source of pride. Yet, it seems some wins are viewed as more worthy than others.
In 2008, our Olympian paddlers got $750, ooo for their silver showing in the team event, a win which overshadowed the GOLD AND SILVER won by Pin Xiu in the Paralympics, not just in terms of dollars and cents but the amount of media attention, just like how it is today where the Paralympics is treated like the 1 minute extra-credits scene at the end of a blockbuster movie. I personally never watched a minute of Paralympic footage, and I wonder if those who complain about award discrepancy have done so themselves.
With everyone either swooning over Feng’s win or busy scoffing it as one bought for the price of citizenship, our ‘true-blue’ Singaporeans in the less ‘prestigious’ sister Olympic event were all but forgotten. But perhaps it’s worth thinking about where exactly the prize money comes from, before accusing the sports council and the government of discrimination against the disabled, treating our Paralympians like Michael Jordan dunking in the face of an opponent on a breathing tube in a wheelchair, though we’re talking about a country where the disabled are described as ‘HOPELESS’ in public service ads, and more money is pumped into making the city more cyclist than wheelchair friendly.
According to a 2008 forum letter, sponsors were not ‘forthcoming’ for the Paralympics, and it does make cold-hearted business sense to invest in an event which draws more eyeballs. A structured payout ranked in accordance to the level of competition was formalised only in that same year, whereby the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) would dish out a range of monetary rewards from a measly $1K in the ASEAN Para games gold to the $100,000 Paralympics gold. In September, Teo Ser Luck responded to critics that the Olympics was ‘open to all and sundry’, and that rewards came from the ‘private sector, not state funds’. But that doesn’t mean the government can’t do a little more just to show they give a damn instead of a patronising pat on the back. To be fair, they did dish out some consolation tokens of appreciation to past winners like Theresa Goh, including titles like SDSC’s Sportswoman of the year and a National Day Public Service medal. For Feng Tianwei, the additional reward was having Chan Chun Sing find her a Man. Wonder if our Para girls would get the same match-making perks.
Most of us can’t relate to either contest to judge how intense the competition could be, but the odds of a Paralympian doing well in an event may seem better than an able-bodied person who has to endure heat after heat to make it to a final. In Laurentia’s silver-winning equestrian event, she was placed in Grade 1a, which includes athletes whose ‘impairment has the greatest impact on their ability to ride’. This classification system, unique to the Paralympics, is intended to ensure fair play, but also narrows down the field, at the same time ensuring that there are multiples of gold, silver and bronze medals for EACH event. We shouldn’t take anything away from Paralympians of course. I wouldn’t be able to make a horse boogie myself even if I spiked its hay with Ecstasy.
In the Olympics, there is no such physical moderation or generosity to ensure that slight, Asian swimmers only battle one another while big Caucasians like Michael Phelps are placed in a separate grade of ‘Superhumans built like winged torpedoes’. Freaks of nature like Phelps, breakout eye-candy celebrity athletes, even controversial doping scandals, are all part of the reason for the Olympics being an sponsor’s goldmine. Still, lottery thinking and advertising dollars alone will do nothing to convince critics playing the sympathy card, those who believe that a higher reward would help offset our Paralympian’s medical bills, though I doubt that’s our winners’ primary goal when they take part in these games. It then becomes a question if our disgust at the pay disparity arises from our emotions being tugged by sportsmen who overcome tremendous physical limitations to excel, from a sense of fairness in terms of performance or effort, or the lack of ‘big-heartedness’ in accepting Feng Tianwei as a true Singaporean champion. If we’re comparing Laurentia to a Singapore-born Olympics champion instead, would we be less picky on the money? (To throw another curveball in the argument, Laurentia Tan is based in the UK and has been living there since she was THREE years old. How much more ‘Singaporean’ is she now compared to Tianwei?)
Matching Olympian pay is probably a stretch, but a good start would be the sports councils increasing the publicity for the Paralympic games, so that those who continue to heckle Feng Tianwei and her success would at least do something more productive like supporting another Singaporean in a world-class event. Maybe they should organise a charity match between the Brazilian Paralympic football team against our very own Lions, if only to educate fans that some professionals can dribble and pass balls better on one leg than our two-legged Lions ever can. A heroes’ welcome would be a nice touch too. Chan Chun Sing, you know what to do.
Also, just watching this ‘Murderball’ trailer below will change your mind about the Paralympics forever.