Athletics: Soh Rui Yong - A colourful, controversial champion

Athletics: Soh Rui Yong - A colourful, controversial champion

SINGAPORE – Top national marathoner Soh Rui Yong was ordered by the District Court on Thursday (Sept 23) to pay former teammate Ashley Liew $180,000 for defamation.

The long-running legal dispute between the former national teammates began over two years ago in June 2019, when Liew filed proceedings against Soh over five statements about an act of fair play by the former which the latter disputed.

It is the latest high-profile incident involving Soh, who has courted almost as many headlines for his outspoken views and actions as he has for his achievements on the track and road.

Here are some things to know about the 30-year-old two-time SEA Games marathon champion.

1. He wasn’t an instant success at long-distance running

The son of an engineer and a teacher, Soh’s journey in running started in 2005 when he was drafted into the cross-country team at The Chinese High School (now Hwa Chong Institution) after attending trials.

His breakthrough came in 2008 when he enrolled at Raffles Junior College and met coach Steven Quek, who managed to get him to focus on his talent and got him to eat and rest better.

Having never finished in the top three at national level previously, Soh would go undefeated in all races, winning the Schools National cross-country A Division titles in 2008 and 2009. He was also the Schools National 5,000m champion in 2009.

That year, he also won the 2,000m steeplechase gold medal at the first Asean School Games in Suphanburi, Thailand.

Soh’s A-level results had earned him a scholarship with Sports Singapore for an undergraduate degree. But he spent only a year at the National University of Singapore before deciding, after an exchange programme, to transfer to the University of Oregon in Eugene. He graduated at the end of 2015.

2. He owns multiple national records

Soh holds five national marks, making him arguably the nation’s premier distance runner.

He holds the best times for a Singaporean in the 5,000m (14min 11.21sec), 10,000m (31:15.95), half-marathon (66:41), marathon (2hr 23min 44sec) as well as the 2,400m (6:53.18).

The achievements have drawn acclaim and also some flak.

Soh was widely lauded for breaking P.C. Suppiah’s 41-year-old record in the 10,000m in 2014 – one of the oldest Singaporean track and field records left standing at the time.

But he caused a stir in late 2016, when he claimed that his 2:24:55 effort at the Chicago Marathon in October 2016 should be recognised as the national record for the 42.195km event over M. Rameshon’s 2:24:22 clocked at the Chiangmai SEA Games in 1996.

Soh had argued that the marathon course in Thailand was not certified by the International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics), the sport’s world body.

But he eventually ended any doubt about his talent by clocking 2:23:44 at the Seoul Marathon in March 2019.

His latest national mark, in the 2,400m which was clocked at the Pocari Sweat Singapore 2.4km Challenge on Sept 4, has also courted plenty of attention.

While the feat is recognised by national track and field body Singapore Athletics, some Singaporeans on social media have claimed that there are plenty who can run faster times.

Prior to Soh’s time and SA’s ratification of the mark, there was no official national record as it is not an Olympic event, but the distance is one familiar to many Singaporeans as it is part of the individual physical proficiency test (IPPT) and National Physical Fitness Award (Napfa) test for students.

In response, Soh issued an open challenge, to be run in October, to any Singaporean who can clock under seven minutes, offering a cash reward out of his own pocket. The prize list for the challenge has since grown.

3. Highs and lows at the SEA Games

Soh has enjoyed much success on the podium at the SEA Games, but has courted plenty of controversy at the biennial regional meet as well.

In his first SEA Games, and running just his second-ever marathon, he won gold on home soil in 2015. He claimed the title in 2:34:56 in wet and windy conditions, and in dramatic style, powering ahead of Thai rival Srisung Boonthung to complete the final 200m of the gruelling race in a blazing 33 seconds.

Events that happened in that fateful race would go on to be the focus of legal proceedings with ex-teammate Ashley Liew even six years later.

Soh struggled with a plantar fasciitis injury in the first half of 2016, but recovered and in August 2017 he became the first Singapore man to win back-to-back SEA Games marathon titles, crossing the finish line in 2:29:27 in Kuala Lumpur.

But his 2017 campaign was tarnished by the formal warning he received for failing to comply with the Team Singapore membership agreement on a personal sponsorship blackout period, which prohibits national athletes from using their name or social media for “promotional or advertising purposes” without permission.

In KL, he had also clashed with then-SA technical director Volker Hermann over the athlete’s cutting holes in his race jersey to help him cope with the heat and humidity in Kuala Lumpur.

Later, Soh protested against having to donate $2,000 of his $10,000 cash reward for winning the gold medal to SA, saying he felt the body was undeserving of the gesture following the bitter disputes and controversies that had plagued the organisation over the past year.

He also cited the clash over the singlet as one of the reasons behind his decision. Soh later agreed to make the donation to SA, but stressed it was done under protest.

Ahead of the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines, he was shockingly omitted by the Singapore National Olympic Council despite clocking a qualifying time which would have won him the gold medal.

4. He has rubbed shoulders with the best in the world

Soh has had two training stints in Kenya, which is renowned for its production of world-class distance runners.

He spent seven weeks there as he worked toward the 2016 World Half-Marathon Championships in Cardiff, and met a group of Kenyans including Eliud Kipchoge – the best marathoner in the world whom Soh now considers a friend- and discovered first hand the training methods and volume that made them so imperious in the sport.

In 2019, Soh returned to Kenya and spent another month training.

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