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Joseph Schooling and the rush to backstory a champion

This post is a follow-up to “Joseph Schooling and the politics of belonging in Singapore“, posted on 13th August 2016, 1155hrs, GMT+8.

It has been roughly 36 hours since Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first gold medal at the Olympic games. Amidst this revelry, many Singaporeans have pointed out that national swimmer Yip Pin Xiu had won Singapore’s first gold medal at the 2008 Paralympics, and independent alternative media The Online Citizen has highlighted that Singaporeans’ excessive celebrations and focus on Schooling might be “insensitive” to the national athletes who are still competing in Rio.

The media reportage on Schooling’s win and construction of his backstory has been intriguing to me. I decided to do a quick analysis of the post-win narratives on Schooling by local English language mainstream news publications on their websites. Retrieved from the ‘News’ tab on Google on 14 August 2016, 2100hrs, GMT+8, the sample included AsiaOne, Channel News Asia, The New Paper, The Straits Times, TODAYonline, and Yahoo Singapore News; I excluded re-posts from foreign media. Many of these articles presented recurring themes and overlaps and are therefore attributed in the hyperlinked “source” more than once. Header image screengrabbed from Google images under the search “Joseph Schooling” on 14 August 2016, 2215hrs, GMT+8.

Folklore and Origins

Some reportage attempted to paint “The Schooling Story”, comprising his origins and folklore surrounding his feat. The first set of folklore focused on Schooling’s initial motivation to compete in the Olympics.

  • He started swimming when his parents wanted him to “learn how to tread water” (source)
  • As a child, Schooling used to visit family in Ipoh with his parents. His relatives reported: “I have never seen a boy that age who was so focused and disciplined. Even when he was here on holiday, he would go swimming as early as 5am” (source)
  • A meeting with his grand-uncle Lloyd Valberg, Singapore’s debut athlete at the Olympics 1948, at the age of 5 (source), inspired him to turn his hobby into a professional pursuit.

The second set of folklore narrated his parents’ dedication to his sport.

  • Both of Schooling’s parents were “top athletes” themselves (source)
  • Schooling’s parents sent him for a “bone-mass study” to project his height and potential in competitive swimming (source)
  • Schooling’s parents sacrificed physically, emotionally, and financially (source), such as “cooking, caring, believing, trusting, doing all that invisible stuff that parents do” (source), and spending “almost $1 million” in his 15-year training thus far (source)

The third set of folklore projected his early swimming career and summarised trajectories.

  • Schooling used to train at Singapore Island Country Club and represented Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) (source)
  • Schooling’s first coach was Singaporean Vincent Poon (sourcesource)
  • Schooling first met Phelps as a 13yo (source)
  • Trajectory of his swimming education and training (source)
  • What Schooling’s back tattoo says and means (source)
  • A “seven-year struggle” (source)
  • Career timeline (source, source)
  • Collated facts (source)

Assistance and Accolades

Some reportage underscored the assistance and accolades Schooling received. The first set discussed some of his state-sponsored aid.

  • Schooling was the “first Singaporean athlete to receive a deferment” from National Service (source), but this expires on 31 August 2016 and is being contended again (source)
  • Schooling is the recipient of Sports Excellent Scholarship from Sport Singapore (source)
  • Schooling is to receive SGD$1 million prize money for his Olympic gold (source)

The second set highlighted congratulations from prominent public figures, and Schooling’s awards and gifts from the state and corporate businesses.

  • President Tony Tan, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and various politicians’ congratulatory Facebook posts (source)
  • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong telephoned Schooling to send personal congratulations (source)
  • Parliament to move a motion to officially congratulate Schooling (source, source)
  • Open top bus parade as a reward (source)
  • One million KrisFlyer miles and an Elite Gold card from Singapore Airlines (source)
  • Year-long free rides for Schooling and his family courtesy of Grab (source)

Charisma and Impact

Some reportage mused over Schooling’s charisma as a new public figure and the impact he has created. The first set painted Schooling as an approachable, personable man who is very much Singaporean at heart.

  • Schooling’s craving for the quintessentially Singaporean chye tow kway (sourcesource)
  • Schooling’s gratitude in rushing to celebrate with “everyone who supported me through the years and watched me grow” despite being sleep deprived post-race (source)
  • Schooling’s patriotism in wishing his win showed “that even people from the smallest countries in the world can do extraordinary things” (source)
  • Schooling’s post-win phone call to his father, including the soundbite “I love you too, Dad” (source)
  • Schooling obliging to photo requests from members of the public (source)

The second set showcased Schooling’s sportsmanship and humility.

  • Schooling’s determination and fighting spirit in overcoming swimming legends taller built than him (source)
  • Schooling’s inspirational soundbites such as “I think if we really put our minds to it, if we want something bad enough, we have the talent, we’re going to achieve it, we’re going to get it” (source)
  • Schooling’s humility despite defeating reigning champion Phelps, with interview snippets such as “I think I’m just honoured and privileged to have the chance to race alongside him” (source) and “If it wasn’t for Michael, I wouldn’t be able to do this” (source)

The third set revealed behind-the-scenes of father Schooling’s reactions; he was watching the race live in Singapore while mother Schooling was in Rio.

  • Father Schooling’s emotional witnessing of his son’s win (source, source), including video footage of his encouragement to Schooling pre-race, and congratulations post-race.
  • Soundbites from father Schooling playing down his son’s celebrity and encouraging young athletes, such as “The most important thing is to be an ambassador for all our children in Singapore that gives them hope that they also can do it. There’s nothing special about him, just a boy who is interested in the sport” (source)

The fourth set presented Schooling’s impact on grassroots communities, veteran athletes, Singaporeans, and international media.

  • Olympic Values Fund set up by Ulu Pandan residents inspired by Schooling (source)
  • Praise from Singaporean swimming veteran, legendary queen of the South East Asian Games (and personally my favourite Singaporean athlete of all time), Joscelin Yeo (source)
  • Inspired young people aspiring to become national athletes and growing their parents’ hope (source)
  • Statistics from social media reactions (source)
  • Poetic reactions from Singaporeans and the media (source, source, source)
  • Vernacular puns from Singaporeans (source)
  • A sold-out 4D number, indicating Schooling’s finishing time (source, sourcesource)
  • Roundup of international media coverage (source, source)


Finally some reportage (I am unable to verify whether or not these are paid/sponsored news coverage) detailed various perks and branding campaigns businesses are launching in conjunction with Schooling’s historic win.

  • ComfortDelgro taxis to display “Our Pride J Schooling” on their rooftop signs for a week, and a discount for commuters who book taxis to welcome Schooling’s arrival at Changi Airport (source)
  • Singapore Airlines served champagne and chocolate to all aboard Schooling’s flight to Singapore (source, source)
  • Restaurant Canopy Garden Dining to offer 50.39% discount on meals (source)
  • McDonald’s to give out free nuggets (source)
  • Food stall recommendations in response to Schooling’s favourite local dish (source)

As some of you know, I have been doing such media reception collations and social media reactions to global social movements in my personal time out of interest. If I had endless time and resources, I would have liked to:

1) do the above with all vernacular, alternative, and independent reportage on Schooling (not just mainstream English language media), including relatable narratives on social media, pockets of backstories, internet folklore, and claims to fame

2) archive and analyse all the Schooling-related media coverage, and construct a trajectory of his media populism and public image from his first press mention till today

3) code and analyse all the headlines and header images in these news stories, and how they correspond to commentary reactions from readers (usually on Facebook threads)

4) compare and make sense of how reportage on Schooling by international, American, and Singaporean media might differ

If you are an educator who has taken interest in the media tsunami over Schooling and would like to try out these exercises with your classes, do let me know how it turns out.

Over and out,

Beep here.

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