When William Lee becomes Singapore’s first ever Olympic diving judge in Rio this year, it will be the latest chapter in his family’s love affair with the sport.
Lee, who is vice-president of diving at the Singapore Swimming Association, got his first taste of officiating during the 2010 Youth Olympic Games
, which took place in his native country. And the 52-year-old says that the “privilege” of judging in Rio will help make up for the fact that his twin sons, who represent Singapore in synchronised diving, were forced to miss out on their qualification bid for the 2016 Games.
Lee’s 21-year-old twin sons Mark and Timothy had hoped to be travelling to Rio with their father, to compete in the synchronised diving competition, but compulsory military service meant they had to put their sporting ambitions on hold.
Instead, their father will be flying the flag for Singapore poolside, as his country’s first Olympic diving judge. And he believes that this ground-breaking achievement will have tangible benefits for pool sports in “The Lion City”.
It’s a huge honour to be called upon to serve at the Olympics! William Lee Singapore - William Lee Singapore
Lee says he hopes to learn as much as possible from his fellow 2016 judges, diving coaches and team managers, and that this new knowledge will further help Singaporean diving, which has undergone a transformation in recent times.
“It’s a huge honour to be called upon to serve at the Olympics,” says Lee. “I’m really honoured by being chosen to represent Singapore. It’s also a wonderful recognition of how diving has been developing in Singapore. It’s not just about the judging; it’s going to be great to be with the other judges but also to learn from all the other countries. I’ll be looking forward to speaking with the coaches and team managers and learning from that.”
Lee, who is a church pastor when he is not poolside, had long been a fan of diving when Singapore won the right to host the first Youth Olympic Games in 2010. As preparations in the city-state got under way in 2009, Lee became involved in the competition management and eventually went on to train and qualify as a judge.
Since 2012, he has judged international competitions including the World Junior Diving Championships, the 2014 World Cup and 2015 World Series. Earlier this year, he was named by FINA as one of the 23 officials heading to the Maria Lenk Aquatic Centre in Rio from around the world, including New Zealand, Cuba and India.
“I think it started with just a passion for the sport,” Lee explained. “I always found it to be one of my favourites; every time the Olympics came by, I was always glued to it. But when Singapore got the YOG, we really re-started the programme again and I was called upon to help out. My kids started diving as well around that time.”
One of Lee’s sons, Timothy, was among the divers to take part in 2010 alongside London 2012 bronze medallist Tom Daley and 2016 World Champion in the men’s 10m platform, Qiu Bo. “It was fantastic,” enthuses Lee. “The whole world coming to your doorstep. To see the young kids, even though they were only 17, 18, 19 years old, they were already world champions. Even though they were in the ‘Youth’ Olympic Games, they were already world champions, so for Singapore to witness all these top athletes, it was a huge eye-opener, and for our local divers it was invaluable experience.”
The YOG have been credited with the revival of the sport in Singapore, which had not entered a diving team in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games for 10 years.
Since then, Lee’s son Timothy has teamed up with his brother Mark and together, they won silver in the 3m synchronised springboard in the SEA Games last year, adding to an impressive haul of medals in just six years.
Now Singapore is looking to use Rio as motivation for Tokyo, with Lee leading the charge to see the country’s first diver qualify for an Olympic Games in four years’ time.
“We’ve great plans for our divers to compete at the highest level for 2020,” Lee said, adding he hoped to draw inspiration from the elite divers at Rio. “To watch them on TV or YouTube is one thing but to be there with them and see how the top athletes go into the event, you learn a lot.
“Even how to carry yourself in the competition, the pressure of competition, and to see how the top athletes recover when they mess up a dive, they are all invaluable lessons.”
Just like the athletes, judges such as Lee are training hard for Rio. His preparations include attending as many competitions and watching as many videos as possible to ensure he gives his best performance.
For Lee, the rewards include getting to see the young divers who participated at the 2010 YOG in Singapore now competing with the best in the world.
“These guys, the divers train tens of thousands of hours to be at the Olympics and we as judges really need to give them our very best otherwise it’s a huge dishonour and disrespect to them for the athletes, to the commitment they’ve made,” says Lee. “You try to attend as many competitions as possible. And then watch lots of videos. Even when I’m watching videos I’m judging as if I’m right there, comparing my score to what was given, and going through the rule book, making sure I’m up to date with all the rules.”
Lee will set off on his first trip to Brazil at the beginning of August ahead of the first diving event on 7 August. Among the athletes to have qualified are China’s Qiu Bo and Jamaica’s first Olympic diver, Yona Knight-Wisdom.
In the meantime, back in Singapore, Lee’s sons are looking ahead to the future. “Oh yes, they are aiming to qualify for the 2020 Games,” says Lee. “They had to delay these dreams but the dream is still alive.”