THE future seems bright if you’re not standing in a national athlete’s shoes.
But, the reality is, although I had some plans when I retired from badminton, they were daunting when it came time to act on them.
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as I stared into the face of retirement, I felt quite lost.
I wanted to turn pro and start a business but the process was challenging - at least from the onset.
As a successful badminton player, I knew my worth and my strengths, but as I left the courts and went out into the real world, it was a different ball game altogether.
It might still be manageable if one sticks to the sport or starts a business related to it. There is a slight advantage too if one is popular. Otherwise, it is a tough zone and quite intimidating too.
Fortunately, I had good advice from some seniors, friends and my supportive family.
After going through some hardships, my badminton centre and other businesses (owned with some partners) have picked up and are doing much better than I had expected.
I have been lucky.
Not all athletes successfully make that transition from sport to retirement. There seems to be a lack of proper direction and transition plans for athletes to fall back on after they call it a day.
A few things may have improved since I left but I believe we need something more concrete for our athletes when they retire.
After all, these athletes have served their country to the best of their abilities, sometimes even risking health and injury.
All national athletes are warriors although they fight in different war zones to keep the nation’s flag flying high. These athletes leave the scene - some earlier than others - for various reasons, but most of them give the same amount of hours in training and commitment.
Don’t these athletes deserve appreciation and benefits?
I have a few suggestions for the national sports associations (NSAs), National Sports Council and the government, to help athletes transition from their glory days to the reality of retirement.
A pension scheme involves big money and the details need to be sorted out, including how it would be distributed.
In Malaysia, Olympic Games medallists draw a monthly salary for life. That is great but what about the others?
Some athletes from non-Olympic sports like squash, karate and bowling have given up their childhood and teenage life and sacrificed their time and talent too in pursuit of sports excellence - are they less of an athlete?
I agree that a lot of thought needs to go into this pension proposal but I believe it is workable.
Even a small amount will go a long way for the athletes as they re-construct their lives outside the sports field.
I would also suggest that the NSAs or governement create options for studies, medical and insurance.
A lot of young players come into their chosen sports field with so much hope and dreams. Some make it but some don’t. And some walk out of the sports centre - without knowing what the future holds for them.
A structure could be put in place whereby an athlete gets to choose to further his college studies for free after his lifespan as an athlete is over. This option is a great way for the government to reward these athletes for their contributions.
The move would also give the athletes’ parents assurance that their children will not end up as dropouts if they do not excel in sports. It will encourage parents to motivate their children to choose sports as a career.
Athletes should also enjoy medical and insurance benefits even after they stop serving the nation. Most of the time, their insurance coverage is phased out when their sporting career fizzles out. I think, that is not right.
There is YAKEB (National Athletes Welfare Foundation) which looks into the athletes’ welfare. I appreciate what they do but their scope is still very limited.
It is my hope that the government or NSAs will show some appreciation for our national athletes beyond their glory days.
While this pension and retirement benefits would be a means to sustain them, the athletes themselves should not completely depend on them.
They should always strive harder for better opportunities.
Do not choke when life gets tough - that is not the hallmark of an athlete.
Many athletes like me have a fighting spirit which is cultivated from a young age. We have been taught to pick ourselves up when we fall.
We have also been taught to remain humble no matter how big a success is.
It is my hope that our athletes hold on to these teachings and showcase the right attitude as they continue with their life’s journey after retirement.
Former badminton singles player Wong Choong Hann won the gold medal at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, the silver at the 2003 Birmingham World Championships, and with the Malaysian team he bagged the silver at the Thomas Cup in Guangzhou in 2002 and Hong Kong in 1998.