by Patrick Lee*
In tropical Malaysia and Singapore, Winter Olympics medals are rarer than snowflakes –- but a dedicated group of athletes are hoping to change that as they make their countries’ debut Games appearances.
A Singaporean speed skater, as well as a figure skater and skier from Malaysia will compete in the Games, a huge achievement for countries better known for palm-fringed beaches and year-round heat than winter sports.
It is the latest sign of an unlikely, yet growing, interest in ice and snow sports in a winterless, steamy region, where temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) in most places.
A major milestone for winter sports in the region came last year when they featured for the first time at the Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia, with ice hockey, figure skating and speed skating making their debuts.
But it was not without problems — puddles formed on the hockey rink during matches, slowing down the puck and forcing marshalls with squeegees to dash onto the ice to mop up the water.
Figure skater Julian Yee, who will represent Malaysia at this month’s Games, is typical of athletes from the region who have had to overcome a lack of facilities, limited official support and public scepticism to pursue their dreams.
When growing up, the only places he could find to practise were a handful of small, crowded rinks in the shopping malls scattered around the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Figure skating on the tiny rinks was “like trying to get an A380 (world’s biggest airliner) to land on a very small runway”, the 20-year-old told AFP.
But he persevered and began training in the morning and evening when the rinks were less crowded.
“I skated two times a day, six days — sometimes six-and-a-half days — a week,” he said.
Are you mad?
There were no official programmes or funding for figure skating so Yee’s parents had to spend huge amounts of their own money on his training.
They also sent him to train abroad during school holidays, in China and South Korea.
“People said: ‘Are you mad? You’re sacrificing all this money,'” his mother Irene Cheow told AFP. “We’re looked at differently now.”
Yee’s efforts paid off and he won gold at last year’s Southeast Asian Games, and came eighth in the 2017 Asian Winter Games. His crowning glory was qualification for Pyeongchang, alongside Malaysian skier Jeffrey Webb.
Speed skater Cheyenne Goh has faced similar challenges in neighbouring Singapore, where even a modest cold snap can set the population shivering.
Last month a freak monsoon surge sent the mercury plummeting to almost 21 degrees Celsius (70 fahrenheit) — chilly by Singapore standards — sending people rushing to the shops to buy scarves and winter jackets.
But unlike her compatriots, Goh got a taste for a cold climate after moving to Canada aged four, where she developed a love of winter sports.
The 18-year-old initially took up ice hockey, a staple of Canadian life, before discovering short-track speed skating while watching the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
As well as qualifying for the Olympics, she has represented Singapore at the Asian Winter Games and won two silver medals and a bronze at last year’s SEA Games.
No winter to speak of
Goh, who is taking a year off after high school and splits her time between Singapore and Canada, insisted her success was not unusual.
“It’s not all that strange that I’m representing a country with no winter to speak of at a winter sport,” she told after a recent training session in the city-state.
She is modest about her chances of matching the success of swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016.
But supporters hope her participation in the women’s 1,500 metres category will encourage more Singaporeans to take up winter sports.
“After Joseph Schooling’s gold medal, many more became keen on swimming — and we are hoping that the same happens to us,” said Singapore Ice Skating Association president Sonja Chong.
The Malaysian and Singaporean athletes join a small group of Southeast Asians heading to Pyeongchang, including several from Thailand and the Philippines.
No matter how well he does, Malaysian skater Yee said his qualification had already shown that athletes from the tropics can prove the doubters wrong.
“It really does show that many things are possible,” he said. “Even without winter in Malaysia, we can still be there.”
* with Elizabeth Law in Singapore/AFP