Social Good

Levelling the playing field

Positive Influence - November 2015

Singaporean athletes to shine at ASEAN Para Games

Seven-time world record holder Yip Pin Xiu is one of Singapore's big hopes for the upcoming 2015 ASEAN Para Games, to be held in Singapore this December.

The 23-year-old paralympic swimmer broke two world records during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning a gold medal in the 50m backstroke and a silver in the 50m freestyle. She was just 16.

“I feel that over the years the scene of disability sports in Singapore has grown a lot," says Pin Xiu, who has muscular dystrophy, a condition that causes her muscles to weaken over time.

This is the first time Singapore will play host at the ASEAN Para Games (APG), and the country is spending S$75 million to ensure its success.

A 166-strong athlete contingent, the largest seen to date, reflects Singapore's increasing recognition and support for disability-related issues.

“APG provides an ideal opportunity to recognise Singapore's world-class para-athletes," says Shiam Jerome Ratnagopal, who is the founder of Dis.Is.Able, a non-governmental organisation that champions para-athletes in Singapore.

Dis.Is.Able took root after Singapore won four medals in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Public outrage was sparked when it was revealed how much Singapore's National Olympic Council offered to athletes winning a gold medal. All able-bodied athletes stood to gain S$1,000,000 whilst the paralympic gold medal cash rewards were set at a mere S$100,000.

“I hope the ASEAN Para Games run smoothly and serve as an inspiration for Singaporeans to want to know about para sports better," says Pin Xiu.

“When I started Dis.Is.Able, it was to use APG as a stepping stone to raise awareness about disability sports and disability as a whole," said Ratnagopal, a former under-21 national footballer.

He believes education has helped raise local understanding about the different types of disabilities and about the role sport can play in the lives of disabled people.

Singaporeans now recognise that their own country's disabled athletes are world class, he says.

Pin Xiu and her close friend, 28-year old swimmer Theresa Goh, have fronted the Dis.Is.Able campaign from the start.

Goh is another perennial medal contender in the para swimming scene.

She's a former World Record holder for the 50m Breaststroke and 200m Breaststroke in the SB4 Category. She also has congenital spina bifida, a condition which results in an incompletely formed spinal cord.

With more than a decade of experience flying the national flag, the two athletes have seen a big change in public perception of disability sports.

“When I first started out, our only newspaper articles were on the Home page, not even on the Sports page. It was all about charity," says Pin Xiu.

Teresa_&_Pin_Xiu.jpg

Research done in the past few years by the city-state's Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) shows that Singaporeans today are more accepting of people with disabilities as equal members of their society.

The para athlete scene has continued to evolve with greater support from the government, and the cash reward for a gold Paralympic medal now doubled.

But Ratnagopal believes that there's still more to be done.

Publicity for the ASEAN Para Games was partly driven by a social media outreach program on Facebook and Instagram through Dis.Is.Able.

The group also organised a discount card offering Singapore para athletes specials at cafes and food outlets across the island - an initiative embraced by hospitality owners.

“When I went down to the cafes I was taken aback by their enthusiasm and how easy it was for them to agree to supporting this cause," Ratnagopal says.

The athletes have also been surprised and delighted by the support they've received.

“It was probably the first time that they had the privilege to actually be recognised for being an athlete for Team Singapore," he says.

For long-term para-athletes like Goh and Pin Xiu, these games are as much an education as it is an inspiration.

“I hope the ASEAN Para Games run smoothly and serve as an inspiration for Singaporeans to want to know about para sports better," says Pin Xiu.