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Youthful folly isn't a sin

IN THE PUBLIC EYE: Schooling was one of three young Singapore athletes who allegedly drank too much at the Asian Games. He must bear the burden of being a role model, as athletes now live in a time when privacy is no longer assured.


    Oct 01, 2014

    Youthful folly isn't a sin

    THREE young Singapore athletes, of legal drinking age, have allegedly drunk too much at the Asian Games. A part of me is grinning. If I am reluctant to sit on their heads, it is because they must already be sore, caused not merely by alcohol, but also stern lectures from disappointed parents and irritated officials. By now, they would have heard the word "responsible" so often that the drinking will not seem worth this ensuing pain.

    Young people have been silly and we should go tut-tut, frown and then move on. They do not need to be forgiven for this is an indiscretion, not a sin. It is hardly to be encouraged but, in the long, sad list of transgressions by other athletes, this is at the bottom of the scale.

    There has been no violence here, no driving while drunk, no cheating, no spouse beaten, no firearms brandished, no fellow athlete bitten. Young athletes trained to push the limits have just pushed the wrong one and been publicly embarrassed.

    Athletes and alcohol have been old friends, but not always kind ones. Mostly in old age, for once the cheers have died and the autograph hunters gone to someone else, it becomes a sad comfort.

    Many young athletes drink, too, because, like young people everywhere, they experiment, they look for release from a high-pressure life and they sometimes don't know better. To be fair, we are raising champions here, not saints. To be clear, this drinking was done after their events; to be responsible, the odd beer which I have had with numerous athletes is fine, but moderation seems the superior alternative.

    But young athletes also have to be smart because they live in a different time. There is a tale, from 60-odd years ago, of an Australian tennis champion who was so hungover before a French Open tennis final that he apparently ran to the court from his hotel at dawn to get sober. It is rumoured that he won his match.

    In the old days, people laughed at such a story and then forgot it. But these days, athletes live under a highly inquisitive public gaze, stalked by technology and followed by rushes of harsh Twitter judgment.

    Michael Phelps, in a moment of utter stupidity and self-confessed "bad judgment", inhaled from a bong, which, unlike drinking, can be illegal. It was at a party at a university, a picture was taken, probably on a modern phone, and before long it was in a newspaper.

    That picture can be found everywhere and athletes must know they exist in a time when privacy is no longer assured. No date with a girl will go gleefully unspotted.

    Every autograph denied will be noted sourly in a blog. Their life, their pleasures and of course their indiscretions are photographed, mailed, tweeted, blogged, and will occasionally haunt them.

    And so these young Singaporeans must remember that if they had been photographed (and who knows if they haven't been) lying in a stupor in the athletes' village, it would never be erased.

    This is a strange world for the gifted, but it is the world they choose to live in. It is fame, especially for the better known, but at a price; it is riches, but at a cost.

    Joseph Schooling, the most celebrated of the Singaporean trio, just taking his first teenage footsteps as a national sporting icon, will particularly need to remember that.

    He is an utterly charming, refreshingly honest, finely gifted, wonderfully mannered young man. He will make mistakes, in and out of the pool, and, while this is a small one, he will be judged by a different standard because he is of a different standard.

    It might seem unfair, but welcome to celebrity, young man. It doesn't matter if he sets out to be a role model, he must bear the burden of one.

    He, and the others, are allowed their nights out, but to use an old parental saying, there is a time and place for everything. Their timing, while still at the Games, was a little off; their place, staggering around the athletes' village, was slightly unworthy.

    In this environment, they represent a nation, and have otherwise done so wonderfully, but ambassadorship does not end till you leave the compound and the city. They are the young athletes to whom kids will look up to and it does them no good if they are discovered lying down.

    But this is also a small test of us as a nation. Do we want to become overmoralistic, overbearing, overcritical of the young and the aspiring, or do we want to hold on to perspective?

    I am encouraged by comments on The Straits Times Facebook page, many of which roughly say, what's the big deal? Yes, they were silly, but no harm was done, no great foul committed. They will learn. On our way to becoming grown-ups, so did we.