Sunday 24 August 2008

Why I bet against Singapore in Olympics

Just before the historic Olympic women's table-tennis semi-final between Singapore and South Korea two weeks ago, I had a wager with a Malaysian friend.

I bet $20 on Singapore to lose.

Now before someone revokes my Singapore citizenship and library card for treason and possible illegal gambling, let me say in my defence that I did it out of love for my country.

The thing is - as sung by Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris Cher as well as Nazareth, still the greatest rock band ever named after a New Testament location - love hurts.

I love Singapore so much that I felt pain the numerous times we failed to win a medal over the decades.

It's like this existential running gag that fans of the deeply profound Peanuts comic strip should be familiar with:

Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick. (This is American football, by the way. So imagine a rugby ball.

Charlie Brown runs toward the football and just as he is about to kick it, Lucy suddenly pulls the football away, causing him to fly up in the air and land painfully on his back.

Charlie Brown curses himself for believing Lucy and vows never to fall for her ploy again.

Then Lucy tempts Charlie Brown to kick the football again and as much as he resists, Charlie Brown inevitably ends up on his back again. And again. And again.

Every four years, I was Charlie Brown. Lucy was the Olympics and the football was Singapore winning a medal.

During every Olympic Summer Games, I wanted to believe that Singapore had a shot at a medal, even though I should've known better from past experience.

After all, the only time we won a medal, I wasn't even born yet. And I'm not a young guy.

But there's always hope, as they say.

And sometimes that hope was raised crazy high every time we came oh-so-close. Like when Tao Li qualified for the women's 100m butterfly final after breaking the Asian record in the heats. It all seemed so promising.

And then Lucy pulled the football away. Fifth place. Once again, I was brought down to earth with a crash.

I cursed myself for falling for the hype. I should've treated the Olympics like the Miss Universe pageant, another major international event in which Singapore competes regularly as a matter of course, but we shouldn't expect to win anything.

It was all about managing expectations. I wasn't going to be Charlie Brown anymore. And that meant betting against the Singapore table-tennis team.

To me, it was win-win. If Li Jiawei and her fellow expats won the semi-final, it would guarantee Singapore our first medal in nearly half a century. If they lost... hey, I won 20 bucks.

But this time, Lucy didn't pull the football away. Hell froze over. The cows came home.

I was almost disappointed because I could've used the extra cash - you know, with inflation and all that.

When Singapore was eventually chewed and spat out by China in the final and subsequent singles competition, I found it strangely comforting that we haven't completely abandoned our 48-year-old losing tradition.

No matter. We have won our first Olympic medal since before the Beatles' first hit, before Singapore joined and was kicked out of Malaysia, before the invention of three-in-one coffee.

And that's worth losing $20.

Even if it's to a Malaysian.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 August 2008