Embrace the inner prima donna of athletes or drop them for the “greater good”?

  • Being labelled a diva in the world of sports may also mean that the athlete is one of the best in the world at his or her given sport.
  • Yet, the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) decided to drop marathoner Soh Rui Yong from the next two games because of his attitude.
  • TheHomeGround Asia finds out from various national sports associations if they pick teams over divas. 
Despite having apologised on Facebook and indicating his willingness to resolve differences to move forward, Soh Rui Yong has yet to hear back from the SNOC. (Photo source: Soh Rui Yong / Facebook)
Despite having apologised on Facebook and indicating his willingness to resolve differences to move forward, Soh Rui Yong has yet to hear back from the SNOC. (Photo source: Soh Rui Yong / Facebook)

In 2016, sporting goods brand Adidas came up with an ad to encourage athletes to challenge the status quo in sports through creativity. The ad says for every athlete to embrace his or her “inner prima donna” and fly the personal freak flag.

One of the greatest to hold a racket, the world could never decide whether tennis star Serena Williams is a diva or a hero. (Photo source: Reuters)

Perhaps this may be a team sport coach’s nightmare, being labelled a diva in the world of sports may also mean that the athlete is one of the best in the world at his or her given sport.

One of the greatest divas to ever hold a tennis racket is Serena Williams with over 70 singles titles under her belt before she turned 40. Then there is football diva Cristiano Ronaldo who, when he left Real Madrid, said, “…you’ll be sorry when I’m gone!”

Portuguese football prima donna Cristiano Ronaldo has grown accustomed to being successful that he is not settling for anything less than a top-three standing. (Photo source: Daily Express)

While these attitudes seem to be acceptable by fans and sports committees around the world, yet, when it comes to local marathoner Soh Rui Yong, it is not. 

Dropped despite apology

Soh is, once again, dropped from a major sporting event – this time the Singapore’s line-up for the upcoming 19th Asian Games 2022 in Hangzhou, China. The island republic is sending its largest contingent of 427 athletes to the games, without him.

This is despite Soh breaking his own national record for the marathon when he competed in the Valencia Marathon last December. According to the Valencia Marathon’s website, Soh logged an official time of 2:22:59. Soh’s time bettered the mark of 2:23:44 which he set at the Seoul Marathon in March 2019.

When asked by TheHomeGround Asia if he thinks it is personal, Soh says the decision seems “very clear (that) it’s personal”. “It may not change until these selectors at SNOC are willing to stop hiding behind the name, come to the table and settle our differences,” he adds.

Long-distance runner Soh Rui Yong had broken his own national record at the Valencia Marathon 2021, which meant he met Singapore Athletics nomination standard timing for the 19th Asian Games. (Photo source: Second Wind Nation)

On April 18, the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) said in a statement that it had “yet to find any satisfactory evidence to demonstrate changed behaviour and conduct by Soh Rui Yong (post-the SEA Games 2022 selection meeting) which would enable him to meet the non-performance related standards required”.

The committee had also rejected the case of the nomination put forward by the Singapore Athletics (SA) for Soh’s participation at the Asian Games, adding that the selection of athletes representing Singapore at major games is “a responsibility of the SNOC as stipulated in the Olympic Charter”. “Nominations put forward by the National Sports Associations (NSA) must comply with the Olympic Charter,” it said.

Singapore Athletics had nominated Soh for the men’s 10,000m event. 

Soh only found out about his exclusion through the media, despite penning his apology on Facebook after he was dropped from the SEA Games 2022 contingent. The games will be held next Thursday till May 23 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

His social media post had indicated his willingness to “resolve our differences and move forward in the best interests of Singapore sports”, adding that he “did not hear back from the SNOC after that”.

The greater good of the team over diva athletes, gold medals

It is usually a big challenge for leaders when they have an extremely talented member of your team, be they the best surgeon, the best salesman, or the best IT technician. While they are at the top of their game, they are also prima donnas with an inflated view of themselves – demanding, temperamental, unpredictable, self-important.

So being on the team comes with a cost. The choice here is whether to give the prima donna the opportunity to use his or her unique strengths every day and feed the ravenous hunger for accomplishment; or let the prima donna go because he or she distracts the team, changing from being an asset to being a liability. 

National table tennis team members, like Yu Mengyu, are told not to let past glory define their future games. (Photo source: SNOC)

President of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) Ellen Lee says selection of athletes is always based on their performance as they are representing Singapore in all the international tournaments that they are sent to.

“Our national team members are trained since young to respect the game, their coaches, their team members, themselves and STTA, as well as all their opponents and everyone else that they come across, locally as well as internationally,” she says. 

“We inculcate in them gratitude, humility, honour and pride in defeat as well as in success and not to let the past glory define their future and to do their best at all times,” Ms Lee adds. 

Executive Director of the Singapore Bowling Federation (SBF) Melvyn Fones says while some sports have very objective criteria for selection, such as qualifying scores or times, bowling is different. 

“Conditions vary greatly for each competition. These include lane conditions, oiling patterns, etc, and some tournaments could be high scoring and some low. It is also not unusual for a winner of a major tournament to not be among the winners at another tournament that takes place soon after,” he says.

In the past, there used to be an even mix of team and individual events at championships like the SEA Games. But in recent times, there are more team events than individual ones. “With more team events than individual ones, bowling should be regarded as a small team sport. How an athlete performs as part a team is more important than the individual’s capability and performance alone,” Mr Fones says.

 He adds that any athlete SBF selects to represent Singapore has to possess “good personal discipline and a team first attitude, and not qualities usually associated with a prima donna, such as cockiness, arrogance, and self-entitled behaviour”. 

“Singapore Bowling aspires to develop athletes who are champions in and beyond the sporting arena as we believe that those chosen to represent the nation should also be positive role models. This aspiration has helped to determine selection criteria such as performance under pressure, team-first attitude, present form, technical skills, spare percentage and personal discipline. These selection criteria have been endorsed by SportSG, and accepted by SNOC,” Mr Fones adds.

Badminton’s Loh Kean Yew is expected to compete at top form, yet continue to be a team player. (Photo source: SCMP)

Mr Alan Ow, the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA), says national athletes are expected to abide by the spirit of the sport and set a good example for fellow athletes. 

“Should one fail to do so or is guilty of conduct unbecoming of a national athlete of Singapore, we are inclined to drop them. Players need to be in good standing and not subject to disciplinary procedures in order to represent the country. We would expect our players to not only possess ability, but he or she must also set a positive example,” he says.

SBA’s selections are based on the players’ domestic and international results or performances. “However, if there are more players who are eligible than there are places available we would have to do a trial or take World Rankings as a factual selection criteria – normally we would use a trial or play off situation.

As for the disabled athletes, Executive Director of the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) Kelly Fan says, “Typically, SDSC would examine the selection criteria published by SNPC and any other qualification criteria published by the games organising committee to form a full picture of what is needed for our athletes to be selected before screening our athletes.” 

“For those who could potentially meet the criteria but have yet to, we would then make plans with the athletes to participate in trials or competitions to work towards achieving the criteria, which could be performance or being medically classified for competition eligibility,” she says, adding that it may involve working with officials to organise sanctioned trials and events. 

“As most of the national athletes train in our direct or member programmes, we are able to observe any indirect issues as well and explore solutions to support long-term athlete development. For example, this may involve us working with the athlete to resolve family and medical issues,” she says.

Apart from the athletic selection criteria, disabled athletes are also encourged to demonstrate team spirit. (Photo source: SDSC)

Ms Marya Malek, Assistant Secretary General of the Singapore National Paralympic Council (SNPC), says that additional considerations apart from the athletic selection criteria include attitude and behaviour, current skill level and fitness, level of commitment and attendance, potential for future development, and the ability to demonstrate team spirit and work well with teammates.

It looks like every national sports association puts teams before the “inner prima donna” that may turn in great results.

TheHomeGround Asia contacted SNOC, but the council has yet to reply.

As for Soh, he says, “I will only keep getting better, and it’s been proven that I can do a lot more good by winning medals for Singapore than being involved in more non-selection controversies with SNOC. We don’t have a lot of depth in track and field as it stands so for the good of Singapore sports, I sincerely hope we can put our differences aside sooner rather than later.”

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