Shock and awe just about sums up the stunning achievement of young Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling at the Rio Olympics.

His victory is classic David beating Goliath; he was the underdog from a tiny country that had never won an Olympic gold.

What made it all the sweeter and remarkable is Schooling beat the mightiest, most decorated Olympian in history – American Michael Phelps who has won 23 gold medals – and set an impressive new record of 50.39secs for the 100m butterfly event. 

When news of Singapore&’s first gold medal broke, it quickly overtook other stories emanating from Rio and became the talk of the world. 

It eclipsed its Asean neighbours’ own Olympic gold successes: Vietnam&’s shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh in the 10m air pistol competition and Thailand&’s weightlifters Sopita Tanasan and Sukanya Srisurat in their individual weight classes and certainly overshadowed Malaysian diving duo Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong&’s silver in the women&’s synchronised 10m platform diving. All are no small feats but there is a total of 28 sports in the Games, not counting those with multiple disciplines, and the most popular ones for a global audience are gymnastics, track & field and swimming, according to topendsports.com.

Among Asian nations competing in the Games, China and Japan are traditionally strong contenders in gymnastics and swimming although the Chinese gymnasts seem to be doing poorly this time around.

For most other Asian competitors, the sports they excel in tend to be the ones with less mass appeal like archery, shooting, judo, badminton and for some strange reason, women&’s weightlifting.

Apart from the Thais, Taiwanese, Filipina and Indonesian female weightlifters have also won medals for their countries.

China remains the sporting powerhouse of Asia, sending its largest delegation of 416 athletes to Rio this year but they have failed to defend their gold medals in sports they used to dominate like badminton and diving.

As for the glamorous track & field events, there doesn’t seem to be any Asian athlete who can challenge the likes of Usain Bolt. 

Meanwhile, the other Asian powerhouse, India, with the second largest population in the world, has never done well at the Olympics which has been the subject of intense debate among Indian and foreign sports pundits.

India also sent its biggest ever contingent of 118 sportsmen and women but so far, has netted but a single medal (with another likely) and as Indian media decry, the prospects are looking bleaker by the day.

Winning an Olympic gold medal is the Holy Grail of sports. 

The pomp that surrounds the Games give the gold medallists unparalleled honour and prestige. And the nations they represent go into collective convulsions of ecstasy and nationalistic joy, which make their governments equally happy.

That&’s why many nations pour millions into sports programmes to nurture and train promising talents and offer great financial rewards to successful Olympians. 

Schooling will get Singapore $1million from the Singapore Government for his gold medal. Vietnam&’s Hoang reportedly will receive US$100,000, a figure, according to AFP, that is nearly 50 times greater than the country’s average national income, of around US$2,100.

Malaysia, which is seeing its best ever performance in Rio, thanks to its badminton players and divers, rewards its successful athletes handsomely under its National Sports Council incentive scheme. An Olympic gold medal winner will receive Ringgit 1 million and a monthly pension of RM5,000; a silver medallist, RM600,000, a RM3,000 pension while a bronze winner gets RM100,000 and a RM2,000 pension.

Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Thailand have similar monetary reward schemes. North Korea uses a carrot and stick scheme:  huge rewards for medal winners and hard labour for the failed ones.

Several western countries have the same financial bait, including the United States, France, Russia and Germany but at a lower rate.

Does it work?

The Technology Policy Institute looked for a co-relation and was mindful of variables like country size and income, “since those are surely the biggest predictor of how many medals a country will win: more populous countries are more likely to have that rare human who is physically built and mentally able to become an Olympic athlete, while richer countries are more likely to be able to invest in training those people.” The researchers found no correlation between monetary payments and medals and said it was not surprising in some countries. In the United States, for example, a $25,000 cash award would be dwarfed by million-dollar endorsements the sportsperson could get.

The researcher also set out to see if the results be different for countries with lower opportunities for endorsements. Their conclusion:  “overall the evidence suggests that these payments don’t increase the medal count” either. Rather, countries that do well are those with a longstanding sporting culture that values and nurtures their athletes long before they qualify for the Olympics. 

That is evident in Western societies where sportsmen, even at the college level, are feted and idolised. In Asia, however, the emphasis is more on book-learning and earning prestigious degrees. The BBC quotes Indian Olympic Association head Narayana Ramachandran as saying India’s sorry performance is more than just a shortage of cash or organisation.

"Sport has always taken a back seat vis-a-vis education. Most Indian families would prefer their children became dentists or accountants than Olympians, he says. 

But that attitude is surely changing as more Asian sportsmen and women go professional and are able to make a good living. In Malaysia, its most popular sportsman, badminton star Lee Chong Wei who is expected to net a Rio gold, is highly successful with a number of endorsements under his belt.

For now, it is still the Western countries that dominate the Olympic medal tally table. But it&’s only a matter of time before more Asian nations, once no-hopers at the Games, rise up the charts.

It&’s already started. The Rio Games will go down in history as a watershed for Asean, with two member states – Singapore and Vietnam – winning their first gold medals. May it be so for Malaysia, too.  

The writer was the former group chief editor of The Star Media Group Malaysia and is its Chief Operating Officer for Content Development.