Monday, 29 June 2009

Malaysia absence fails to dull AYG torch relay

Members of the Philippine youth soccer team are taken to the Aloha Loyang Resort to be kept in quarantine in Singapore June 20, 2009. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, June 29 — The torch relay for the Asian Youth Games (AYG) blazed a spectacular trail across Singapore yesterday, setting the scene for a nine-day sporting fiesta that will bring together some 1,400 of the continent’s finest young athletes.

The flame, which was ignited at dawn by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, will reach the Singapore Indoor Stadium tonight for a glittering opening ceremony attended by all 43 participating countries.

Despite the spectre of Influenza A (H1N1) and Malaysia’s late decision not to send its full contingent here, the stage is now set for Singapore’s first multi-sport extravaganza since the 1993 South-east Asian Games.

“It’s important that not only do we see this as a sporting event, but also an event for bringing people together from Asia, especially young people,” said Teo, who is also president of the Singapore National Olympic Council.

“I think if they get to know each other, play sports together, they’ll get to understand each other and that will help to bring all our countries together.”

After the flame was lit at the Kallang Waterfront yesterday morning, it fanned its way across the island in three separate torches, making stopovers in Singapore’s five districts as well as Orchard Road.

The torches will travel across 45 schools today, and by the time they complete their historic journey, over 60,000 people would have been involved in the relay, including about 200 torch-bearers from diverse walks of life.

Amongst those who had the honour of running with the torch was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who graced the Ang Mo Kio-Yio Chu Kang Community Sports Festival in the morning.

He was handed the torch by veteran national discus thrower James Wong, before embarking on a 200m run accompanied by hundreds of residents.

Other torch-bearers yesterday included national footballer Lionel Lewis, Singapore’s AYG swimmer Quah Ting Wen, and Benson Tan, an intellectually-disabled athlete.

Organisers pulled off the relay yesterday while scrambling to deal with Malaysia’s last-minute move not to send most of its athletes to the nine-sport Games.

The decision was made by the country’s Education Ministry, which issued a directive barring student athletes from overseas competitions due to concerns about the global H1N1 outbreak.

Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong told The Straits Times yesterday that the government did not want the students to risk contracting the flu.

“We want to be consistent in our decisions. We cannot allow anyone to take the risk,” he said.

The 79-strong Malaysian contingent —- of which 42 were students under the purview of the Education Ministry — was supposed to arrive from yesterday onwards.

But only two sailors, who arrived here last week to acclimatise to the local water conditions, will take part in the competition.

Malaysia’s football team returned home last week after being knocked out of the preliminary stage of the competition.

Just last Friday, the country’s National Sports Council was adamant that it wanted to send the contingent to the AYG despite an earlier instruction by the Education Ministry to cancel Malaysia’s participation.

Datuk Sieh Kok Chi, secretary of the Olympic Council of Malaysia, said he had no choice but to comply with the latest orders.

“It was a decision made on Saturday night and a government directive was sent out to us,” he said. “This is obviously a big loss for the kids and they are disappointed to miss the chance to compete in Singapore.”

AYG organisers have said they respected Malaysia’s decision, while expressing confidence that the Games will continue to shine. Officials from other participating countries shared this sentiment.

Said the treasurer of the National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka, Gamini Jayasinghe: “I don’t think (the withdrawal) will affect the AYG much. The powerhouses like China and Japan are still here.” —The Straits Times

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