Neo Jieshi took up running as a means to keep fit for basketball and when the Singaporean human resources manager secured a surprise Rio Olympics marathon berth, even the specter of the Zika virus is unlikely to stop her from fulfilling a dream.

Neo's transformation from university fun runner to Olympic athlete was completed last December when she finished 10th in the Singapore Marathon, just on the cut line for automatic qualification based on the race's IAAF Gold Label status.

"It was a complete surprise and totally unexpected," the slightly-built 30-year-old told Reuters as part-time runners jogged by on the training track surrounding the National Stadium.

"I didn't even know about the qualifying standard so it was a shock when I was told I had secured an Olympic berth," added Neo, who at present is Singapore's only female runner bound for Rio.

"A local athlete informed me I had done enough to go to Rio and I received confirmation in January after Singapore Athletics contacted the IAAF to make sure I had qualified."

Neo has increased her training under a newly appointed national coach with the aim of improving her personal best time of three hours, 09.57 seconds but is mainly looking to "learn all I can from elite athletes and soak up the atmosphere" at the Aug 5-21 Rio Olympics.

Neo has completed more than 15 marathons since running her first nine years ago, even taking part in the bomb-blighted 2013 Boston Marathon, and is fully committed to being on the start line in Rio despite the emergence of the Zika virus.


Brazil is at the centre of the outbreak that has spread to more than 30 countries. Researchers there are working to determine whether Zika has caused a big rise in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and may have developmental problems.

"I am definitely concerned about the virus but I am taking it in my stride at the moment," Neo, who got married last October, added.

"The Olympics are still six months away so I will keep monitoring the situation as we approach the Games while continuing my training and preparation for the race.

"Of course I am concerned as it is happening in Brazil but I am trying not to worry too much. My gut instinct is still to go regardless and I would probably only change my mind if there was a travel advisory issued by the relevant authorities."

More of a concern for Neo is the doping scandals that have led to Russian athletes being banned from the Rio Games, accusations of a cover-up within the governing IAAF and recent revelations casting doubts over the feats of record-breaking Chinese distance runners.

"It makes me sad. I know a lot of athletes and we all train really hard, I would say most of us are clean but there are few black sheep causing the scandals that are bringing the sport down," she said ruefully.

"I think the industry is doing all it can to clean up the sport. There are more tests than ever before, even when I qualified for Rio they didn't just randomly select six athletes like they had in the past.

"Last year was the first time that the top 10 finishers were tested for illegal drugs. I thought this was a good way to let the public know that 'hey we are taking this really seriously and are not going to tolerate any doping'."

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)