Last weekend, I had the honour of meeting one of Malaysia’s greatest track and field athlete at an event in my constituency – G.Shanti. For whom this name sounds familiar, you would remember her as Malaysian’s sprint queen during the 1990s going up against the likes of Lydia DeVega and Indian spring legend, PT Usha. She still holds the Malaysian national record for the 100m (11.5s) and 200m (23.4s). She was the last Malaysian women to win the 100m and 200m at the South East Asian games in 1997.
The 1990s were undoubtedly the golden years of Malaysian athletics. While we may have had bigger stars in past years – Rabuan Pit in the 1980s and M Jegathesan in the 1960s – the combination of talent in the 1990s has, in my opinion, never been replicated. Watson ‘the Flying Dayak’ Nyambek – who still holds the men’s 100m record at 10.3s –, Romzi Bakar in the 400m, Samson Vellabouy in the 800m, A.Munasamy in the 1500m, M. Ramachandran in the 5000m and 10000m, Nur Herman Majid in the 100m hurdles, Harbans Singh in the 20km walk, G Saravanan in the 50km walk, Loo Kum Kee in the high jump, Mohd Zakri Sadi in the long jump and triple jump, Wong Tee Kui in the hammer, Mohd Yazid Imran in the javelin, N. Manimagalay in the women’s 400m, Noorseela Khalid in the womens’ 400m hurdles, Yuan Yu Fang in the womens’ 5000m, 10000m and the 20km were all SEA game gold medallists in the 1990s. In the 1997 SEA Games, Malaysia took home a haul of 17 gold medals.
Fast forward to the recently concluded 27th SEA Games held in Myanmar. Malaysian only managed to garner a measly 13 medals – 4 gold, 6 silver and 3 bronzes – which is our worst SEA games showing in history.
While the four athletes who managed to achieve national records – Mohd Irfan Shamsuddin in the discus, Iskandar Alwi in the pole vault, Jakiw Wong in the hammer and Mohd Hakimi in the triple jump – should be heartily congratulated, their efforts could not hide the poor performance of our contingent as a whole.
What should worry our Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF) even more is the fact that all of these national records were set in the field events. Of the 13 medals won, less than half (six), were won on the track. Of the two track gold medals – both won by school teacher Mohd Jironi Riduan and he is about to retire from both these events in order to switch to the marathon. In the next SEA games in 2015 in Singapore, we may be looking at zero gold medals on the track. This is a sad state of affairs for the track powerhouse which we once known for, especially during the golden years in the 1990s.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Even the mighty United States can have their once dominant position in the men’s 400m and 4 by 400m relay challenged by the like of relative minnows such as the Bahamas and Grenada. But what is both sad and worrying about the Malaysian situation is the precipitous decline in our athletics performance even as more funding and better facilities are being spent on the sport.
I don’t think there is one silver bullet which can reverse this decline. Speaking as someone who monitors track and field developments and who likes to run, I can only offer my amateur suggestions.
Firstly, there must be some role which can be played by former athletes in the development of future stars. I refuse to believe that our younger generation of athletes and aspiring athletes have nothing to learn about G. Shanti’s experience of winning SEA games gold in the 100m and 200m in 1997 at the age of 30 after she became a mother. I am certain that with the proper incentive and infrastructure, many of these former greats can make the transition into being coaches themselves. Alberto Salazar may not be a household name even in the United States but this former New York and Boston marathon champion was instrumental in coaching Mo Farah to Olympic and World Championship Gold for the 5000m and 10000m. He was also the coach of American runner Galen Rupp, who brought home the Olympic silver in the 10k, beating many other more accomplished Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes. Given the proper support, training and incentives, I am sure that some of our former champions can make a similar transition to become successful coaches themselves.
Secondly, more conducive environments and infrastructure can be created in order to find, nurture and develop our athletes. Eugene, Oregon otherwise known as Niketown not only has the facilities but also the environment which allows athletes to train together and to push themselves to be the best in the world. In Malaysia, it is difficult to find functioning tracks where aspiring athletes can train. The ‘soft’ infrastructure in terms of sponsorship, coaching, medical treatment, sports conditioning, training colleagues and the like are found in even smaller quantities. Even if our more promising athletes get sent overseas, they face the challenge of having adapt to new surroundings and non-athletic challenges. There is no replacement for a strong, home grown program to identify and nurture talent.
Third, the right sponsorship support must be provided, especially to our most promising athletes. I still recall the inter-bank athletic championships which used to feature bank employees such as G.Shanti and Nur Herman Majid. This was a way for these athletes to receive a regular income and to maintain flexibility in terms of their working-training schedule. Most of these banks also have their own training facilities (some located in my constituency in the Bangi area) where these athletes can train. Sadly, the inter-bank games are gone along with the employee sponsorships that came along with them.
I’m sure that there are many other suggestions and insights which are useful for returning Malaysia to its glory days on the track. But I’m not sure if they will be implemented soon enough to avert yet another disappointing performance in the next few SEA games. In the meantime, I will have to make do with my memories of the 1990s with the likes of G. Shanti and her fellow champions.
Dr. Ong Kian Ming is the MP for Serdang and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.