What if Singapore's Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling was born poor?

August 14, 2016

(photo credit: Reuters, grabbed from Channel News Asia)

As Singapore praises our golden boy, who's also a record breaker by the way, for making a splash at Rio 2016, celebrates our first ever Olympic Gold at Rio 2016, and listens to the sweet, magnificent sound of Majulah Singapura being played in the Olympics for the very first time, I can't help but wonder — what if Joseph Schooling was born poor?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm as proud about our Olympic win as every other Singaporean out there. Firstly, here's a Gold medal worn by a true blue Singaporean. So what if he's Eurasian? Joseph Schooling is third generation Singaporean and liable for National Service like every Singaporean son, so I don't know why are netizens debunking his citizenship based on the fact that he trained in the States. Secondly, like news outlets reported, this Gold is, to Singapore, more than just a medal. This is our cry to the world. Hey, Singapore is a small country but we have what it takes to make it big.

(photo credit: Willy Foo and Reuters, grabbed from Channel News Asia)

Joseph Schooling has been swimming competitively since the tender age of five. I greatly admire his determination and I'm sure it was his resilience that brought him to the podium he was standing on last morning. There's no denying of Joseph Schooling's flair for swimming, but would things have turned out differently if he wasn't born in a privileged family? Would Joseph Schooling still be an Olympic champion?

He was born into a prestigious family — Joseph Schooling's granduncle, Lloyd Valberg, was the first athlete to represent Singapore in the London 1948 Olympics, and he kickstarted Joseph's obsession with competing at an Olympic level. If Joseph Schooling was born into a typical Singaporean family, would anyone had planted the seeds for success at a world level in his mind?

Joseph Schooling's apartment in Florida (photo credit)

I don't know what kind of apartment the Schooling family owns in Singapore but if they only own a miniature two-room flat, I supposed they wouldn't have been able to host Olympians from around the world, giving young Joseph Schooling a chance to meet his idol Michael Phelps, further motivating him to make a name for himself.

You can argue that the Schooling family wasn't rich, but with a helper and a driver in Singapore, Joseph Schooling definitely came from an at least above middle income family. If Joseph Schooling was born poor, could he afford to leave Singapore for studies in Bolles School in Florida, training with one of the best coaches in the world?

If not for his articulate mother and educated father who did his research well, Joseph Schooling might not have been granted a deferment for NS, allowing him more time to train for Rio 2016. Sure, results and training played a significant part of getting that deferment, and Joseph Schooling no doubt had a lot to show — I'm not discrediting him for that — but someone had to present the results eloquently to convince the committee.

My point is, it all boils down to luck as well, doesn't it? The family you're born into, your financial capabilities etc. At the end of the day, money still talks. Even if you're born with a talent, you need money to maximise your chances of growth. Which brings me to the question that's been bugging me.

Winning the Olympics — is it 60% nature and 40% nurture, or the other way round?

P.S. I don't know Joseph personally but from observing his interviews, I think he's a respectful boy who knew how to use his privileges to capitalise on his potential instead of taking for granted. I applaud him for being the humble person he is too, it's not easy to stay grounded when you know you're one of the best swimmers in this world, and I can't deny him of his talent. He sacrificed a lot for his gold medal and record breaker title, and he deserves to bask in every bit of the glory.

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  1. I reflected on the same thing as you before I saw your post - on whether his socio-economic background played a vital role in his swimming journey. Because, if his family could not afford to let him study and train in US, his sports growth would surely have been impacted in one way or another :)

    1. I'm pretty sure it does. Only in a perfect world will everyone's chances of survival be equal. I'm not bitter about Joseph Schooling's situation though because he's a smart guy who took full advantage of his situation and pushed himself to his limits. Really admirable, I must say.