Your 10 Questions

  • Business
  • Saturday, 12 Dec 2009

Pathologist, ex-Olympian and international sports official Datuk Dr Mani Jegathesan answers your 10 questions.

If you could be involved in a sport other than athletics, what would it be? – Ramli Talib, Kedah

I am not quite sure whether we choose the sport or the sport chooses us. In my case, it was certainly the latter. As my father and elder brothers only participated and excelled in athletics, I was not brought up to seriously think of any other sport.

Of course, as I began to show my prowess in athletics, people tried to enlist me in other sports in which they felt my speed would be an advantage. When I was in junior secondary school, I was inducted to turn out for the school’s second 11 in hockey. I lasted only one game. I got on the wrong side of a defender and took a hit on my face, resulting in a hospital visit and a couple of stitches.

When I entered university, the seniors insisted that I should turn up for the rugby selection trials. To impress them, I sprinted all over the field. I was told that it would have been more impressive if I had carried the ball as well.

We all have different talents and there is an element of luck if you choose something that you seem to have a natural flair for. That is why it is important that young ones are allowed initially to dabble in all sorts of different sports so that they can find their niche.

Are the challenges of becoming a national athlete today the same as those of say, 30 or 40 years ago? – Chua Tong Kee, Selangor

Four decades ago, all national athletes were strictly amateurs and had to rely on the support from sports associations, families, friends and well-wishers. There was yet to be a sports ministry or national sports council to fund athletes or their training programmes. Neither were there incentives or rewards before or after success. Today, in keeping with global trends, athletes and their minders have essentially gone professional, meaning their needs are largely met by the government as well as sponsors, and then some. With it, of course, comes accountability, whereby athletes and associations have to account for the outcome of the money spent.

Athletes also need to spend more time on their sports.

What do you think of athletes or youths who are tempted to experiment with drugs because of the pressure to perform better? – Rohan Kanagasabai, Seremban

It is not difficult to guess what I think of athletes who take drugs for performance enhancement, or in simple terms, cheating. I have been involved in the anti-doping movement in sports for nearly 30 years, albeit in an honorary (voluntary) capacity. Currently, I lead the medical and anti-doping commissions of the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. In this capacity, my colleagues and I spare no effort in putting in place the processes and procedures that are directed at keeping the games ‘dope-free’. Whilst we acknowledge that we will miss some ‘clever’ cheaters, our methods have had fair deterrent value. However, not all athletes who fail drug tests and are punished, are ‘cheaters’. Some are just ignorant about the rules, and mistakenly consume prohibited medications. There are also others who are relatively innocent victims of manipulating systems or persons. Unfortunately, under current practices of the ‘strict liability rule’, ignorance or victimisation is no excuse. Athletes are held responsible for anything they put into their bodies.

How did it feel to be the first Malaysian to win an Asian Games gold, in 1962? – Sarimah Hassan, Penang

I was just an 18-year-old medical student who took his studies seriously but also had a serious hobby. Fortunately, the circumstances of amateur sports at that time allowed me to dabble in both .

By the time I was in Jakarta for the Asian Games, my pre-games performances had already given a glimpse of a real possibility of winning then Malaya’s first Asian Games gold medal. Malaya had just participated in two Asian Games before that and the best at that point was quarter-miler Rahim Ahmad’s bronze medal in Tokyo in 1958. Expectations on me were high and I psyched myself up to meet this challenge in the face of competition from clearly more daunting athletes of the likes of the legendary Milka Singh of India. When the time came, I just gave it everything I had, didn’t look back and bagged the medal. Subsequently, there were many more gold medals by Malaysians at the Asian Games, but it always feels special to be the pioneer.

In the past, people took up sports for pure love of the game. Do you think many athletes today do it only for the money? – Eugenie Devan, Kuala Lumpur

When we compare the present with the past, we must take into consideration societal changes, including in value systems, attitudes and beliefs. We cannot run away from the fact that society in general has become more mercenary and consumerist. It is hard to get people to do anything for free any more.

It is true that sportspersons took up sports and worked hard to excel in it purely for the love of the game and the tremendous self-satisfaction that came with doing something well. No additional incentives were offered or expected.

But society has changed. Is it reasonable to expect sportspersons to remain an isolated microcosm from the rest of society? Are they not products of society? Sports are being professionalised today and like other professionals, sportspersons expect to be properly remunerated. Some sportspersons become mega-earners, and certainly, some negative features will accompany this trend, like corruption, cheating and poor sportsmanship. The price to pay for progress?

What do you think needs to be done to encourage youths to be involved in sports? – Victor Lee, Kajang

It is absolutely crucial that we push for a healthy lifestyle, including physical activity, for all Malaysians, especially the youth. They are our future, and life habits and skills are best inculcated in the formative years. A time-tested method for encouraging physical activity is the practice of sport. Sport brings not just the exercise component, but psychological and social benefits as well. Sport is fun, exciting and engaging, and sports can teach us many good values.

We need to use all the measures at our disposal to encourage the youth of this country to embrace the healthy lifestyle and to make participation in sports an integral part of their lives. The place to strongly advocate this would be in the schools as well as in the community in which the youth work and play. Programmes must be made attractive and compelling.

There are a number of groups in Malaysia already engaged in these promotional activities. Perhaps it is time to evaluate the results and fine-tune the measures taken so far.

What is your opinion of the standard of Malaysian sports? – Ranjit Singh, Selayang

When we talk about the standard of sports, we could be talking about different aspects of sports management and achievements. But one has to look at any endeavour in a holistic manner.

Let us look realistically at our current sports achievements. We can boast of a squash world champion and no fewer champions in lawn bowls and tenpin bowling. Our badminton players threaten to be the champions at every tournament they go to. Our sprint cyclists have also shown that they are on the fringe of world class. Our archery exponents are inching their way there too.

Not bad. How many other endeavours can Malaysia claim to be at the top in the world stakes?

However, there is the perception that our standard of sports is declining, and this is true in some sports where we used to excel regionally, if not globally, such as football and athletics. This is part of a societal phenomenon linked with our growing affluence, whereby the young ones may not be so taken up with spending hours in the hot sun practising these sports.

Furthermore, these sports are so universally practised that to get to the top becomes increasingly harder and the gap is widening. If we really want to get back on to the radar screen in these sports, there has to be significant re-engineering of our emphasis, opportunities and stimulus of these sports at the grassroots and early school days.

We have a world champion in Nicol David. Don’t you think its high time squash becomes an Olympic sport? – Michael Dass, Kuala Lumpur

Of course, as Malaysians, we would very much have liked squash to get into the Olympic Games. The World Squash Federation did make a spirited effort but unfortunately fell short of convincing the members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of the game’s merits over those of golf and rugby, the two sports that will feature for the first time at the next Olympics.

The many factors behind such a decision include the profile and interest of the sport for the television industry, which accounts for a significant portion of sports revenue; the number of countries (and equally important, which countries) that actively play the sport; the spread of countries that have athletes in the top echelons; and the lobbying capacity of the proponents of the sport.

There is also the need to contain the number of sports at the Olympics so as to lighten the cost of hosting. The IOC has decided to keep it at 28 sports, which already accounts for well over 10,000 competitors. This means a sport has to make way for an incoming one and this often leads to conflict of sentimentality versus pragmatism.

An athlete’s diet is becoming more important. Today, you have all sorts of sports supplements. How was it back in your days as an athlete? – Chan Wong Kit, Penang

Sports nutrition research has added much information that now ensures that athletes eat to suit their physical needs. The nutritionist or dietician has become an integral part of the sports science support group of the elite athlete of today. Furthermore, athletes have the financial support these days that enables them to get the best that sound dietary habits can offer.

This was not the case a few decades ago. Whilst we were aware of the need to eat good food and have balanced diets, these were not consistently available to us truly amateur athletes. I remember being able to afford only fried noodles or chicken rice for a hurried lunch in between medical studies at the university whilst actively training to make on an onslaught on the Asian Games 200 metre title.

The issue of supplements is yet another story. Athletes today are under tremendous pressure to take all kinds of supplements. I am not saying that judicious use of supplements is not useful, but it must be within the context of ensuring a truly balanced diet. An athlete can certainly over-supplement. This is not only wasteful, but there is the danger that some sports supplements have been known to be adulterated with or contaminated by substances that are on the anti-doping regulations’ ‘prohibited’ list.

What are the three things you want to be remembered for? – Fairuz Ali, Batu Pahat

A good man, husband, father and friend; a medical specialist and researcher; and a sportsman.

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