life, Singapore, sports, Writing

Killing our will to dream

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And so it appears that despite all that talk about inclusiveness and eradicating the emphasis on results, we are, once again, back at square one.

Because what MINDEF’s reply to a certain talented footballer implies is that athletes in team sports will likely never be granted deferment regardless of how talented they are. Because it is simply impossible for one athlete to single-handedly carry his team to a medal-winning performance on the world stage.

Ask Lionel Messi. He knows.

Can a society be truly inclusive if the protocols in place encourage aspiring sportsmen to pick only individual sports that they can excel in despite their love for football or basketball or volleyball or curling or ice hockey?

Can a society be truly serious about doing away with the emphasis on grades if it tells aspiring sportsmen that they are ultimately still judged by their potential to deliver a medal?

Yes, I love football. No, I was never a sportsman. But I don’t need to be a professional athlete to know how the system messes with our lives.

I started playing football when I was around six years old. I liked playing with those 20-cent plastic balls that we’d take turns to buy from the mama shop. The larger leather balls frightened me – they were the size of my head. And getting hit by them hurt.

Back then, we’d determine our teams using the Apple-Orange method. Sometimes we used the Ti-Ti-Ti method. Sometimes the best players were made the captains and they picked their teammates. Nobody wanted to be picked last. It was just damn malu. The older boys supported the Serie A teams and we often divided ourselves into AC Milan and Inter Milan. Sometimes Parma was mentioned. I hadn’t heard of these teams, but I preferred AC Milan, because it shared the same initials as my name. It was only a few years later that I started watching the English Premier League, and that was when I fell in love with Liverpool.

Unlike today where most people play in caged AstroTurf or futsal arenas, we played football wherever there was a surface that was large and flat enough. The location didn’t really matter. We just wanted to play.

Sometimes we played at the void deck. The skinny rectangular pillars were great defenders.  Sometimes it was the basketball court. It was more challenging to score here because the goal was really narrow. Sometimes it was on the slightly undulating field that was filled with weeds. I once made a bad tackle here and fractured my friend’s ankle. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for that.

I was never any good at the sport. But I loved it anyway. Because it transported me to a fantasy realm where I was the star of my own team. For a period of time, I loved pretending to be Steve McManaman. I tried to dribble like him, but rarely succeeded. But I continued trying anyway.

It’s somewhat amazing how I can still remember many of the goals I scored. My best ones were from volleys. I also remember the sliding tackles I’ve made. I once sent my friend flying because of it. But I got the ball. It was fair play. It felt really good.

When I was in secondary school, I was faced with the dilemma of choosing between trying out for the football team or the table tennis squad. Everyone told me to pick the latter because I stood a better chance of making the school team. Because being in the school team meant getting vital ECA points that could help lift my O Level results.

Because studies were more important than everything else.

I did what everyone told me to do. And you know what? I had a good time. I represented the school every year. I beamed with pride whenever I had to leave in the middle of a class for a tournament. I won medals. My teammates and I got praised by the principal in front of the entire school.

But table tennis was never my passion.

Sometimes I wonder if I could’ve become a better paddler if I did not spend most of my training sessions thinking of the football game that would take place after. Some of my teammates and other students would often gather to play football on the netball court after training. On days when we didn’t have enough players to form two teams, I’d head home and call my neighbours to ask if they were playing in evening. There were times when I was so desperate to play I’d simply take free-kicks on the grassy patch downstairs. By myself.

I started thinking about my future when I was 15. The first thing that came to mind wasn’t being a doctor, or a lawyer, or an astronaut, or a banker.

I wanted to be a professional footballer.

But just like before when I had to decide between football and table tennis, I chose pragmatism.

I continued to play football when I was studying in Sydney.  I continued to play football when I returned to Singapore. I continued to play football after moving to Shanghai. I’ve never stopped trying to emulate my favourite players. I’ve never stopped performing sliding tackles.

Those calling for Ben Davis to “just suck it up and complete his two years in NS then carry on with his life” do not seem to fully comprehend the magnitude of the situation.

Yes, the system cannot simply accede to the wishes of every Tom, Dick and Harry who claims he wishes to “chase the dream”. But Ben Davis is no Tom, Dick or Harry.

He is, mind you, the first ever Singaporean to sign a professional contract with an English Premier League club.

Some are concerned that granting him deferment would lead to a “slippery slope” situation. But we can address this. Terrace the slope with terms and conditions. Determine what constitutes a worthy cause.

Yes, Fulham is no Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Juventus. But it is still a football club that will in the upcoming season play in one of the top leagues in, not just Europe, but the world.

Yes, he might not make the first team and go up against superstars like Mo Salah, Sergio Aguero or Harry Kane, but he would nevertheless have the priceless opportunity to train with bigger, faster and more skillful foreign peers. Ben Davis is only 17. He is at a point in his life where his development is crucial to his sporting future. There is an element of urgency to this matter. He cannot wait two years.

He needs to do this now.

Besides, if PSC scholars can be granted deferment, why is an athlete, one who has clearly demonstrated his talent to play at the highest levels, not allowed to?

Singapore has nothing to lose from letting this young, talented boy pursue his dream. Sure, he could eventually become so darn good that he decides never to return or play for another country. But that would be a PR disaster on his part, not Singapore’s.

This was the chance for the powers that be to show that they truly mean every word they said about inclusiveness, about becoming a sporting nation, and about focusing on the learning journey instead of the result.

This was the chance for them to show that they do indeed care for the dreams and aspirations of their residents, that the people are indeed citizens and not merely employees of Singapore Inc.

Instead, they have gone with the safe option. The utterly pragmatic one. The one that would thwart one boy’s clearest chance of becoming a top footballer.

But what I find to be the most maddening of all is the barely subtle declaration to all Singaporeans that sometimes it is just pointless to pursue certain ambitions in life.

And it is incidents like these that insidiously convince people to shatter their dreams before they can even begin to chase them.

I know. Because I was one such person.

What we need is for every child lacing up his boots, or tuning his racket, or putting on his goggles, to head out into the arena believing that he is there for a purpose, that every drop of sweat and blood he sheds is meaningful and part of the arduous but attainable journey to achieving his dream of becoming a top athlete.

Because what is a life without purpose, without dreams, without hope?

 

 

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sports, Writing

The wild dreamer turned hurdles king

 

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Omar McLeod loves being in the spotlight, and he’s not shy to admit it.

“Ever since I was a kid I knew I wanted to be famous,” he laughed.

“I wanted to be a TV personality. I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to be a gold medallist. I used to be a wild dreamer.”

Like most Jamaican kids, he was a student of the country’s national sporting: running. Like everyone else, he was inspired by the exploits of Usain Bolt, the eight-time Olympic gold medallist who has been immortalized as the greatest sprinter mankind has ever known.

And so McLeod ran. On anything. Over everything.

He used to set up buckets and trash cans on the road and challenge his friends. Every time he saw a speed bump on the road he just had to vault over it.

“I loved hurdling. It was like I was born to be a hurdler,” he said.

Whenever his mother sent him on an errand to buy groceries, McLeod and his cousins would take up starting positions outside his home before racing to the store, running on dirt tracks, tarred roads and through grassy fields. There were no medals for victory, just sweets.

Just like Bolt’s Olympic career, McLeod was undefeated.

“I ended up winning all the sweets so my aunt told me I had to share with the rest of the kids or I would get lots of cavities,” he chuckled.

McLeod went on to run for Manchester High School and Kingston College before moving to the United States. There, he lit up the collegiate athletics scene with the Arkansas Razorbacks, becoming a four-time NCAA champion in the 60m and 110m hurdles as well as the 4x100m relay.

The man loves his discipline. Each hurdle, he said, reminds him of the struggles he went through in life. The death of his beloved aunt in 2014 is the most significant one of all. She was only 27 years old.

“When she passed away, I was reintroduced to myself. It was one of those redefining moments that got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

“I realised that life is short – I really had to go after what I wanted.”

And go for it he did. The next year, he clocked 12:97 to beat Hansle Parchment, the national record holder of the 110m hurdles, at the 2015 Jamaican Championships. In April 2016, he posted 9.99 seconds in the 100m sprint at the John McDonnell Invitational in Fayetteville, US.

No other living being on this planet has managed to run the 110m hurdles and 100m sprint in under 13 and 10 seconds respectively.

Just like Bolt, McLeod had feats he could truly call his own.

His stock was now rising. But he knew he was far from perfect. Technique is something he knows he has to work on. He knows he could probably learn a thing or two from the Chinese.

“I know China is famous for their technical events. Last year when I was here I got to see how a Chinese athlete warms up. He was just doing a bunch of stretching exercises but his technique was amazing. He made the rest of us look really bad,” he laughed.

“Liu Xiang’s technique is just sublime. He never hits hurdles. He never falters. He always gets the job done. There is no hurdler in the world who does it like Liu Xiang.”

Moments later, McLeod couldn’t resist wresting the spotlight back from the Chinese legend.

“He reminds me of me. We don’t lean into the hurdle as much.”

His Achilles’ heel, ironically, is his explosive pace. He approaches the hurdles faster than he can react. He crashed out of two races before the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But the bruises he suffered were merely superficial. A few months later, on sport’s biggest stage, McLeod made history by becoming the first Jamaican to win the 110m hurdles at the Rio Olympics.

His childhood dream was now fulfilled. He was truly famous. He confessed that he took his time with the victory lap, savouring every bit of adulation that went his way.

“I just didn’t want that moment to pass. I ended up going back to the hotel at two or three in the morning,” he said.

“I spoke to my mum when I got back to the hotel. We started crying as soon as she called me.”

Has this fame gotten to his head? McLeod claims it hasn’t, saying the quotes from the Bible he frequently gets from his family and agents help to tame the beast named Pride. He claims that his child-like personality has a nullifying effect on egotism, too. He admits to playing a lot of video games and watching Pokemon. He also sings regularly in the church choir.

Ambition, however, is his biggest anchor.

“I’m still young, there’s so much more I have to accomplish – that’s also what keeps me grounded,” he said, before citing the Bible verse Luke 12:48.

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

This is turning out to be a good year for McLeod. In February, he broke Jamaica’s indoor 200m record. In April, he became the new record holder of the 110m hurdles at the Drake Relays in Iowa.

His latest 110m hurdles triumph came last Saturday at the Shanghai Diamond League. Again, his pace threatened to derail his race. He sent the second hurdle crashing to the track. But he was unfazed, never once losing the lead in a tight race that saw Spain’s Orlando Ortega breath down his neck every inch of the way. But it was also this power that sealed the win in the final three meters, allowing him to peel away from the Spaniard to finish 0.06 seconds quicker.

Despite declaring that he was the man to beat at Saturday’s meet, he knew better than to be smug about his status as Olympic champion.

“Ortega is one of the best. There was no time for complacency. I didn’t get to control the race the way I wanted to but I felt him and all I wanted to do was maintain my composure,” he said.

“I knew with my speed and technique I would get to the line first.”

If anything, the pressure of being at the top has amplified his hunger. He wants to win the world championships in August. He wants to focus on training for his favourite event, the 200m, next year.

But what about the 100m? McLeod knows he’s got the pace but he isn’t a big fan of the blue ribbon event.

“There are so many technicalities involved in running a 100m that I didn’t know about. I used to think that you just go into the blocks and run. But when I ran it, I ran it like the hurdles. It was so much harder. There is no drive phase, no transition. I told my coach: ‘Man, this is hard!’” he laughed.

“You get some leeway for the 200m. You can back off a little bit and make your move. I love the event. I actually like it more than the hurdles.”

Breaking the world record held by Aries Merritt is also on the cards, but McLeod is in no hurry to do so. In reality, he has all the time to do so. He is only 23.

“I’m still a learner of the sport. I think people forget how young I am. I want to break the world record when I’m ready. If it’s not this year, that’s fine. But that’s a career objective for sure.”

McLeod paused when asked what his secret is. He doesn’t fancy Jamaican yam like Bolt does. He settled for something a little more visceral, saying it was all about “just being myself.”

Then he grinned, his eyes lighting up. It was fried chicken.

“Actually, I think my secret would be Popeyes. Yeah, I love Popeyes.”

The rising star has already been compared to Bolt, the legend he has revered since childhood. Only a few athletes in the world get to enjoy such an honour, but that isn’t quite enough for McLeod. He’s not interested in living in someone else’s shadow.

Because he loves being in the spotlight, and he’s still not shy to admit it.

“I do not want to be Usain Bolt. I want be my own spark to the sport,” he said.

“I want to be Omar McLeod.”

 

 

Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com 

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