PUBLISHED BY THE ONLINE CITIZEN ON 18 SEPTEMBER 2008
This week, a disabled athlete ensured that the national anthem of Singapore was heard for the first time at the Paralympic Games, held in Beijing. The Paralympic Games shares the same international status as the Olympic Games.
Yip Pin Xiu, since Monday, is the first Singapore athlete to win gold at the games when she came in first in a swimming event.
The newspaper, Today, dubbed her “Singapore’s Golden Girl” and noted that her victory “comes a month to the day after the Singapore women’s table tennis team bagged the country’s first Olympic medal in 48 years, when they beat South Korea in the semi-finals in Beijing”.
And how will the country celebrate Pin Xiu’s contribution to the glory of her motherland?
For some two decades now, schemes have been put in place to reward such athletes for their achievements at such international sports gatherings.
The Singapore National Olympic Council, under the then oversight of one of Singapore’s political legends from the ruling party, Dr Yeo Ning Hong, implemented the Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme (MAP).
Between $1 million to $2 million is now awarded to an individual or team that secures a gold medal at the Olympic Games. Athletes are rewarded up to a maximum of the first gold medal won at the Olympic Games. Significantly, MAP is for athletes with no disabilities.
For disabled athletes, the Athletes’ Achievement Awards (AAA) applies. This was created in 2006 based on a framework similar to MAP.
Both MAP and AAA are primarily supported by the Singapore Totalisator Board or the Tote Board, which uses surpluses from its gaming activities to fund these initiatives.
However, there are some key differences between the AAA and MAP schemes.
Firstly, between $100,000 to $200,000 is now awarded to an individual or team that secures a gold medal at the Paralympic Games.
Secondly, the incentive is given “based on a single highest achievement”. No additional awards are given for multiple medals but there is provision in MAP for additional awards to be given for multiple medals won at the Asian, Commonwealth and SEA Games.
As a paralympian, Yip will receive $100,000 under the AAA, about one-tenth of what she could have received as an olympian. Had she been an athlete with no disability, she would have been awarded $1,000,000.
Contrast this figure also with the $750,000 that our China-born athletes, who are now Singaporeans and won the silver medal at the Olympic Games, will receive.
The rationale for the divergence in the amounts does not appear clear.
One reason could be the visibility that the Paralympic Games enjoys in comparison to the Olympic Games. Both MAP and AAA are heavily reliant on corporate support. As a result of the greater brand recognition enjoyed by the Olympic Games, corporate sponsors may be more inclined to support the MAP.
Another reason could be that the AAA could do with a fund-raiser like Dr Yeo Ning Hong who, as a result of his clout and extensive contributions both in the public and private sectors, was able to roll out an ambitious programme such as the MAP.
Ideally, there should be little or no divergence in the manner in which we celebrate our olympians and paralympians.
Yip suffers from muscular dystrophy, which impedes her ability to straighten her hands. She is also suffering from worsening vision. These extreme medical conditions did not stop her from giving Singaporeans a compelling reason to be proud about. In the years ahead, she will need much more financially for her medical conditions than an abled athlete. Looking at her needs and merits, there is justification for Yip to receive an award as high as an olympian.
As much as there is nothing illegal about this practice of rewarding abled and disabled athletes differently, there is some basis for one to argue that it is unfair.
Perhaps, a way forward is to merge both the MAP and the AAA so that disabled and abled athletes are incentivised equally for their contributions to Singapore.
In making its bid for the Youth Olympics 2010, Singapore represented that “worldwide, our country is recognized for its honesty, integrity and commitment to fair play”.
Surely, the principle of fair play requires that the achievements of our disabled athletes for the glory of this country be recognised and rewarded as highly as the contributions of our abled athletes.
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