By Patrick Johnston
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Among the weekend bargain hunters on the third floor of a sleepy shopping mall, international short track speed skating returned to Singapore with the hope of finding the tropical Asian nation a first Winter Olympian.
The South East Asian Cup, which concluded on Sunday, was only the second international short track meet to have been staged in the hot and humid citystate, where ice is usually preserved for cooling drinks rather than providing a sporting platform.
Sixty five junior and adult skaters from six countries took part in the two-day event in the western suburbs, scheduled early each day so the rink could be rented out to the mall's shoppers during the lucrative afternoon weekend rush.
The few early movie-goers and shoppers that stumbled across the event could be seen watching on inquisitively as the fast-paced, crash-filled, dramatic races took place. Some, though, were probably unsure what exactly they were watching.
"Pretty much all the time," Singapore skater Lucas Ng told Reuters when asked how often he had to explain his sport to his compatriots.
The 27-year-old part-time skate coach, who won the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters at the SEA Cup, is the shining light of Singapore's small speed skating fraternity and will head to South Korea next month to appear in his fifth world championships.
He finished 33rd in the 500m at last year's world championships, four seconds off the gold medal winning time. But Singapore simply sending a skater to compete regularly at the elite championships is a success in itself.
"From a young age I always wanted to take part in winter sports as it's really extreme for us being here in Singapore in a tropical country on this part of the earth where we have no winter at all," he said.
Ng is trained by South Korea's four-times Olympic champion Chun Lee-kyung, her recent hiring part of a drive to help boost local interest in the sport and eventually lead to an Olympian of their own.
"We would like to see one as soon as possible," Singapore Ice Skating Association president Sonja Chong told Reuters.
"It depends on a number of factors, obviously you need the talent and fortunately you need to put into place the trainings, facility and coach."
Facilities are next on the agenda. Ng and Chun meet twice a week for training ahead of the March 11-15 meet in Seoul, but only when the mall closes. One session starts at 04:30 a.m. on Sundays.
Helping the cause is the preliminary inclusion of ice sports for the first time in the biennial Southeast Asian Games, which will be staged in Kuala Lumpur next year.
But trying to convince inhabitants of a tiny island nation with little international sporting pedigree and permanent steamy temperatures that short track speed skating can deliver Winter Olympic pride will always be a tricky task.
"It's a challenge because there is only one rink in Singapore, theoretically it shouldn't be a challenge as it's an indoor winter sport which means we aren't really limited by the outside weather," Chung said.
"We can create as many ice rinks in Singapore technically, but of course we need to wait for more things (events and skaters) to come up so we can have skating in more parts of Singapore."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)