Cover Illustration by Francesca Gamboa

Group One Holdings Group President Hua Fung Teh writes that sport is more than just professional play: it transcends borders, cultures, class, and history as a language that we all instinctively understand

At the inaugural Laurent World Sports Awards in 2000, Nelson Mandela said, "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."

Few embody the unifying power of sport more completely than the late statesman, who once appeared on the 1995 Rugby World Cup field to rousing chants of “Nelson! Nelson!” despite great tension then over his election as South Africa’s first black president.

As Mandela showed, sport can heal divisions and rally diverse people around a common cause. It also promotes healthy living and a host of positive values like discipline, teamwork and determination. It creates purpose and a sense of unity at individual, community and global levels, something I’ve personally witnessed growing up with sport and at my career with One.

Sport connects us to culture and tradition.

Basketball and martial arts (taekwondo) were my two main sports growing up. Basketball has over a century of history in the US, and martial arts such as taekwondo, wushu, karate and muay thai have roots in Asia dating back thousands of years. Sport is an integral part of culture and life, connecting us to our social history and values. Before sparring in taekwondo, bowing to your opponent, greeting them and getting ready to engage always reminded me of traditional values such as honour and respect. And I love being reminded of such values especially in a world today often preoccupied with the secular and material.

Sport unites nations.

Sport (as opposed to war or conflict) gives humans a positive arena to channel our energy and natural competitive spirit – it’s why the Olympic Games have endured to this day. Sport rallies nations, like when Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold medal in the 100m butterfly at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, sending the entire country into a frenzy. Many Singaporeans like myself were in tears (of joy); we felt so proud and happy that Singapore had finally won Olympic gold.  

With One’s diverse mix of athletes from East and West, and a global broadcast to over 150 countries, we see every day entire nations rallying behind their local heroes as they fight for national glory, be it the US’ Demetrious Johnson, China’s Xiong Jingnan, Singapore’s Angela Lee or Myanmar’s Aung La N Sang (who became Myanmar’s first world champion in any sport when he won the One Middleweight World Title in 2017). In fact, Aung La is so iconic in Myanmar that they erected a bronze statue of him in his hometown of Myitkyina!

Sport builds bridges.

But sport is not just about rallying behind one’s own kind. Sport builds bridges between peoples too. When North Korea fielded a team for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the world saw how players from the so-called “Hermit State” were no different from anyone else—they laughed, cried, played their hearts out and showed great sportsmanship. Likewise, it was ping pong which helped thaw diplomatic ties between the US and China in the early 1970s. After a friendly overture between US and Chinese players, US players were invited to exhibition matches in China—the first time Americans were allowed into China in over twenty years. And this eventually paved the way for the normalisation of US-China relations.

Sport brings people together.

The unifying nature of sport trickles down to the individual level too. Many of us who played sports growing up develop deep friendships with people from many different backgrounds. For instance, it was my dream growing up to play basketball in the US’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). When I first got to MIT, the basketball team had already recruited most of their freshmen from American high schools and started practising together, so I had to try out for a small number of remaining walk-on spots on the team. I ended up being one of two international players on the team and the only one from Asia. I was overjoyed to make the team of course, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit apprehensive too; I had never played in America—the mecca of basketball—before, and everyone already knew each other so I had no idea how I would fit in. I was an Asian kid who had just showed up from the other side of the world. The first few weeks were indeed a bit trying, but I stuck with it and over time, the common passion we all shared for the sport, plus the fact that we were all fighting through blood, sweat and tears together for the same thing forged bonds that live till this day. Several of my teammates even visited me in Singapore after graduation, so I had a chance to show them a bit of my home country!

Sport uplifts disadvantaged communities.

One more very powerful aspect of sport is its ability to uplift disadvantaged communities. Often you hear professional athletes talk about sport keeping them off the streets, and eventually giving them a career and means to make a living. Having operated in emerging markets since inception, One is no stranger to this. Take our Filipino athlete Eduard Folayang for example—his family was so poor that several of his siblings died because they couldn’t afford medicine. Martial arts was his way out of that life. Through hard work and determination, he would go on to earn three gold medals in wushu at the Southeast Asian Games, became a multiple-time One Lightweight World Champion, and was once voted Philippines’ Athlete of the Year, beating out the great Manny Pacquiao.

Sport is a great equaliser that never discriminates because of gender, income or social background. Our athletes, just like many other athletes in other sports, are living proof that with hard work, discipline, and some talent, anything is possible.

Hua Fung Teh is the Group President of Group One Holdings, Asia’s largest global sports media platform. Prior to One, Teh was a Principal at global private equity firm TPG Capital (TPG) and an aviator with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). He has held leadership positions both at the RSAF and at Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, where he served as the ministry’s Formula One (F1) Project Team Leader. Teh is a Taekwondo black-belt holder and played varsity basketball at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

This piece is part of a collaboration between Tatler Asia and Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO), a global leadership community of chief executives, which counts more than thirty thousand people from 142 countries among its members.


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