MALAYSIAN sports has a lot on its plate. Apart from delivering results, the main challenges for us as a young sporting nation is having to combat drying talent pools, inaction over grassroots development and athletes unable to make a fluid progression from junior to elite to champion.
It's something that has seen more column inches in our local newspapers of late.
Take athletics for instance.
Malaysia was a regional powerhouse back in the 60s. In fact, it was the Golden Era with the likes of Olympians Datuk Dr M. Jegathesan, M. Rajamani ( both sprints) and the late Ishtiaq Mubarak (hurdles).
Both set the bar high and it was people like Josephine Mary (middle distance), G. Shanti (sprints), M. Ramanchandran (long distance) and P. Jayanthi (long distance) who kept that fire burning.
Would anyone be the least bit concerned that the Flying Doctor’s 46-year-old national record in the men’s 200m (20.92s) which he set at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 still stands today?
That little piece of trivia stuns French marathon runner and coach Jean-Pierre Lautredoux.
“What? ... Really? That is not normal,” says Lautredoux as he works to process that piece of information.
“If you’re a full-time athlete, not someone with a 9-5 job, and all you have to do is eat, sleep, run ... then it’s not normal that you cannot perform better,” he concludes.
Think about it. Forty-six years! It's the same duration that there apartheid was imposed in South Africa! It took the late Nelson Mandela only 27 years in prison to inspire a nation and the world.
Yet, Malaysian athletes have not been able to break Dr Jega's record until today.
Not surprisingly, Frenchman Lautredoux laments the lack of good runners in Malaysia. He claims that when he participates in runs, he still beats Malaysian runners who are younger than him.
“I’m not the same as before and I only train half of what I used to but I can still beat all the young guys who are 25, 30 years old,” he says, explaining that with some runners there is always an excuse for why they can't train.
“Even if I don’t train for competition, I still need to run. For me running is part of my lifestyle – like eating or brushing my teeth. I like to run. It’s something I’ve done for 38 years. There is no hassle, all you need is a pair of shoes and you can do 45 minutes (of running) anywhere ... it's not hard,” says Lautredoux.
Lautredoux is no stranger to competing on the big stage. He began his love affair with running at the age 10, winning junior cross country titles. In his prime, he was among the top-20 half-marathon runners in the world (IAAF World Half Marathon World Championships 1997).
Having settled down in Malaysia 10 years ago, Lautredoux now devotes his time to his family, coaching and training for marathons, running his JP Running Academy for children and organising running competitions.
“I'm human – I have days where I wake up and think, 'Ah, I’ll skip today'. But then I see such beautiful weather, blue skies ... I have to put on my shorts, my shoes and just run,” he continues.
“And if you’re travelling ... if you’re in the city you can run from your hotel to the park, or just around the city. It’s a great way to discover a new city rather than just driving around in a car,” he says, reminiscing his runs along the coastline of Cape Town, South Africa.
Lautredoux was lucky to have had access to many competitions at a young age at club and school level. It helped him become the French cross-country champion at 14.
Malaysia, on the other hand, is way behind in terms of running opportunities for children and if this situation is not rectified, we will not have a pool of good runners in the future either.
“To get an elite, you need to work from a bigger base, maybe 50,000 kids and shave it down till you get 30 and then one day you get an elite. To make a runner, it takes about 10 years ….”
Explaining how Kenya keeps producing good runners, he says it's down to the physiological make-up of their body, their blood and the altitude of their environment. To put it simply, they're just built for long-distance running.
In addition, from a young age the Kenyan children run long distances just to get to school.
“That’s how they build their stamina and that's a very strong foundation. It’s like conditioning. So at 16, you just need to give them some speed and boom, they are there!” he adds.
Currently, Lautredoux works with kids to help train them in their running.
He says children are easier to work with because they are a clean slate. There is no ego, no drama, no comparisons and most importantly – no complaints.
Some of them also surprise him with their determination and eagerness despite not having the perfect beginner's build for running. They're just eager to complete running drills including planks, high knees, jump skips and stairs.
“You can mould and teach them the good habits of running. And they are so eager because it feels like a game. They want to have fun. That’s the key to get them started – make it fun.
“When I organise runs, I have 600m for children. You see, a child can probably sprint for the first 300m and then tire out. Then they have to walk to the finish or have little spurts of running and walking in a race. It takes the fun out of it. I want them to experience a race,” says Lautredoux.
“I have parents who contacted me after the Desa Parkcity Run last year to say how their children were so happy. They loved the race and one even slept with his medal. To hear that makes me feel happy,” he says, smiling.
And yet, most races in Malaysia don't cater to children. Some races have a Fun Run category (usually 5km), but as Lautredoux explains, that distance is too long for children.
Whilst Malaysia does have a burgeoning running community, Lautredoux says the approach by some runners is totally wrong.
While some truly have the love for running or have developed the passion for it, sadly a large number are still quite enamoured with the running fad, more interested in getting the goodie bags and the “prestige” that comes with getting a finishers medal and being able to say they took part in a race.
The 47-year-old Frenchman has had first hand experience with that.
“That's the wrong attitude. It shows that the passion is not there. I've organised a few events and I get people asking what's in the goodie bag before they register!” he laments.
“For kids, it’s never a good idea to give cash rewards. It’s a bad habit. When I was young, you competed and only the top three got medals. That's how I was groomed. Here, you get a T-shirt, a finisher's medal ….”
“(Prize) must not be a priority. You must only do it for the love of the sport. Only after, when you’re good, can you think about getting some cash. But here, they have no performance, but they want to be rewarded anyway. It's not healthy.”
Obviously, Malaysia has a long way to go before we can start churning out international-level runners.
It's been 46 years since Dr Jega's 200m record. Let's not wait another 46 years to break it.
We need to start with the children and we need to start them running now. After all, running is the most basic, fundamental and soul-fulfilling childhood activity. Let's not deprive them of that.