FORMER national badminton player and coach Datuk James Selvaraj is very passionate about life after sports.
He is especially concerned about what our athletes will do after they are no longer in the limelight.
As we talked over lunch recently, we agreed that the spoils of victory are very tempting to our young athletes these days.
Apart from the official cash-reward scheme, there are also instances when the winners get extra incentives like more cash, cars, houses, land, honorary degrees and even Datukships.
Coming from an era when being able to play for the nation is reward in itself, James laments that such rewards are simply short-term.
Athletes who do not prepare themselves for life after all the glamour is gone will learn the hard way that no one owes them a living.
James, who is senior manager at Bata Malaysia, says it is understandable that athletes want to remain in their sports even after they are no longer players.
Some can make a success of their business, but not everyone can do so.
James quotes badminton as an example when even young players are already thinking of setting up their own badminton academies after they retire.
Some are just not interested in their studies and just want to “play, play, play”.
He remarks that Marina Chin, the principal of the Bukit Jalil Sports School, is facing an uphill battle in motivating her students to pay attention to their studies.
We have to think long term, James said, quoting how when he started working with Bata in 1980 as a sports division supervisor, he still enjoyed having one leg in the workplace and the other in the badminton court, as coach.
“In May 1985, my boss told me, choose badminton or choose your career,” James recalls. “So I hung up my racquet.” A few months later, he was promoted.
Having worked for Bata for nearly 30 years, James is now a senior manager, and has no regrets about putting his career first.
We spoke of some Malaysian athletes who had been able to carve a niche for themselves after their sporting career ended, like cyclist Ng Joo Ngan who sells bicycles; Razif Sidek who has a Perodua dealership and a Petronas station; hockey player Ow Soon Kooi who runs the Olympic Sports Hotel in Jalan Hang Jebat; and Tan Yee Khan who runs the Sea View Resort in Pangkor Island.
But the majority of the athletes will not be able to go into business, argues James, and who will employ them if they do not even have basic working skills?
His advice to young athletes: “Train, play hard and excel. But never neglect your studies because that is what is going to take you through after you retire.
“If you can’t do well in your studies, learn a trade or a business with your sports friends. Or learn the finer points of the game you play so that you can become a coach when you retire. Take up courses in coaching from your association.”
In the old days, big companies would put national athletes on their payroll in non-critical positions so that they can be free to train and participate.
But companies now prefer to sponsor and see their brand associated with a winner.
And to be practical, it would not make sense to give a job to anyone who does not have the necessary skills.
Athletes learn soon enough that fame and fortune go together, but if fame is hit, fortune will also slide downhill.
Just look at Tiger Woods and how his sponsors are either cutting ties or distancing themselves.
Sports is big business, no doubt about it.
But while Corporate Malaysia can play a role in providing our sports stars with a secure retirement, the sports personalities need to do their part and not rest on their laurels.
There is no substitute for dilligence and strong moral fibre.
● Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin remembers his school days when the best athletes were also the top academic performers and wonders why we have lost so much over the years in grooming all-rounders.