Sunday 5 August 2012

To win an Olympic medal, looks aren't everything

So last week, I was having dinner with my mother, which nowadays, is an occurrence almost as infrequent as Singapore winning an Olympic medal.

As usual, the topics of conversation were how much her leg hurt, the different physicians she had seen because of her leg and how I should give her more money to pay for those physicians.

Then out of nowhere, she suddenly launched into a rant against Singapore swimmer Tao Li.

“She’s so fat!” my mother said in Mandarin.

“How can you look like her and not expect to lose in the Olympics?”

This was the day after Tao Li had failed to qualify for the women's 100m butterfly final in London, ending her medal hopes.

I never knew my 72-year-old mother was such a sports fan. Or a comedian.

While seated at the dinner table, she started doing the front crawl to demonstrate how Tao Li’s fat little arms were useless in competition.

My mother had never made me laugh so hard before in my life.

That’s the magic of the Olympics. It brings families closer together in the ridicule of defeated sports stars.

I laughed so hard I didn’t have the heart to tell my mother that she got the stroke wrong. (Tao Li's events are the backstroke and the butterfly, not the freestyle.)

Or that 22-year-old Tao Li had done pretty well for Singapore in the past despite her, uh, chubbiness.

But I understood where my mother was coming from.

I once spotted the cherubic swimmer and her colourful hair in the Soup Spoon at Ion Orchard and was surprised by how small she was for a two-time Sportswoman Of The Year award winner.

I couldn’t decide whether to congratulate her on her achievements or put her over my shoulder and burp her.

For the record, Tao Li is 1.6m tall and it would be unchivalrous to mention the lady’s weight.

But she isn’t the only member of Team Singapore who doesn’t quite look the part of a world-class athlete.

I was watching 32-year-old Singapore table-tennis player Wang Yuegu's loss to Japan’s 19-year-old Kasumi Ishikawa in the quarter final of the women's singles competition on TV and wondered, “Why are we sending a beer aunty to the Olympics? Of course, we’ll lose.”

You can't blame the Germans for that.

It’s like when I see people of certain body types (similar to Tao Li’s) wearing the Standard Chartered Marathon 42.195km finisher T-shirt and I'm thinking, “Really?”

Of course, looks can be deceiving. Runners taking part in marathons can come in all shapes and sizes, but I doubt the top finishers look like beer aunties.

Unfair or not, we expect Olympic athletes to look like superheroes, not like us. Gymnasts are supposed to look underage and weightlifters must have ample armpit hair.

You know which local sports figure I think really looked like a world champion? Ang Peng Siong.

I met the former "World's Fastest Swimmer" a few years ago while filming an episode of Phua Chu Kang at the Farrer Park Swimming Complex and he still looked like he could beat me up.

But then I also met another former Singapore swimming great, Joscelin Yeo, on the same day and she also looked like she could beat me up.

(Who knows? Maybe if Junie Sng showed up, she could’ve beaten me up too. I’m staying away from Pat Chan.)

The sad thing is even though they looked the part, Ang and Yeo never won an Olympic medal.

And who finally won a medal for Singapore in 2008 after 48 long years? The beer aunty and her two mei-mei, Li Jiawei and Feng Tianwei.

Once again, looks can be deceiving. So Tao Li still has a chance despite my mother calling her fat.

But since my mother started it, I shall continue to mock the physical appearance of Team Singapore with one last observation.

Did you see the photo of Feng, who won the bronze in the table-tennis women's singles competition last week, posing with the gold and silver medal winners?

How is it that Feng has been a Singapore citizen since 2008 and the other two are from China - and yet all three managed to have the same hairstylist?

You can take the girl out of China, but you can’t take China out of the girl.

(Yes, I know. My mother is funnier.)

- Published in The New Paper, 5 August 2012

UPDATE: The story of a story