THE 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games are about 15 months away and Malaysians, like the rest of the world, are eagerly waiting to see top athletes from 196 countries and territories spread across seven continents gather for the greatest sports showpiece on earth.
But what is there in store for Malaysia at the Olympics? Critics say we have nothing to dream about in terms of gold medals. Perhaps a silver or bronze would be an absolute miracle. If that does happen, could it be interpreted as a “gift from God”?.
Malaysian athletes made a grand entrance at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. It was the first Olympic appearance by the nation under the flag of the Federation of Malaya, which was renamed as Malaysia in 1963.
Nine years later, 61 competitors comprising 57 men and four women took part in 48 events in 10 sports ranging from athletics to men’s field hockey at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
It was officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad. It was also the first time that the Federation had competed under that name, as it was previously Malaya.
But sadly there was nothing really to cheer about in Melbourne or Tokyo. The Malaysian contingent to Tokyo featured some of the finest athletes this nation has ever produced.
In Tokyo, there was Mani Jegathesan (now Datuk Dr), Kuda Ditta, Karu Selvaratnam, Dilbagh Singh Kler, Canabagasabai Kunalan, John Daukom, Mazlan Hamzah, Mohamed Abdul Rahman and Victor Asirvatham in athletics. They did not win a medal among them but instead showed the world that we are a nation to be reckoned with in sports.
Come 2016 and some 60 years since the Melbourne foray, Malaysians are still in search for that elusive gold medal.
Our best bet is on Datuk Lee Chong Wei in badminton or maybe Sarawakian Pandelela Rinong in diving. Could there be more? How we all wish Nicol David, the current world number one, would be at the Olympics too... but squash has yet to get its due recognition by the International Olympic Council.
Chong Wei has been out of competitive action since failing a dope test last year and following a backdated eight-month suspension the former world No. 1 is eligible to return to the court tomorrow.
From a nation of 30 million, it is indeed a shame that the Badminton Association of Malaysia has only been able to produce one great player.
Look around us Malaysians. It is the same scenario in sports.
In football, we are ranked 164th in the world, but that is okay for some as our football officials believe that standing is not important. That brings about the next big question — where are our so-called world beaters in cycling, diving and swimming?
Our results in the pool are so inconsistent that we are too afraid to make any predictions or have that “good feeling” factor for fear of disappointments.
We pin our hopes on Azizul Hasni Awang, that he might just give us a gold medal from cycling at the Olympics – that, too, provided he is fit and injury-free.
Since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the National Sports Council has spent close to RM20mil each year on athletes’ preparation for the Olympics alone.
That sums up to an estimated RM500 million in the last 23 years (This is an average and the figures could even be higher).
In Malaysia alone, a good 250 badminton academies have mushroomed all over the country, some partly owned by a good number of former national players.
There are also close to 300 football clubs in the Klang Valley alone, yet we struggle to have a decent national team which performs to its very best at the highest level.
Just what has happened to all these budding players in our so called state-of-the-art academies? The answer to that is we don’t really have a proper monitoring system in place to look at the talents.
In January this year, I was given an opportunity to work with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as media officer for the Asian Cup 2014 in Australia. I was based in Brisbane for a good 29 days. My local contact was a gentleman who has been involved in swimming for almost 20 years. I asked him how is it that Australia was able to produce world champions in every Olympic cycle.
His instant replay was, “In Queensland alone they have almost 150 public schools, literally every school has an Olympic-size pool and qualified coaches.
In fact, some of these coaches are either former or current world champions. So these young swimmers who start at the age of six are not only trained by the best but are also monitored weekly. Every 12 or 13-year-old swimmer would have competed in a minimum of 30 events at that age-group level.”
It is true that the success story of many athletes lies in sheer hard work but it is the platform that has been in place which ensures a right structure provided to tap the best talent and groom them. Identified swimmers are then moved to the High Performance Training Centres and moulded into champions.
Sometimes, I do wonder why is it that sports in our country remains stagnant despite having some of the best infrastructures and qualified coaches available. Where did we go wrong? Is this because of the politics in our sports associations? For valid reasons, this could also be one of the factors that form a hindrance in our march towards excellence in sports.
A classic example is the case of four-time All-England Morten Frost Hansen, who should have arrived in Malaysia last year to take up the position of Technical Director with the BA of Malaysia.
However, due to officials being unable to make a decision on the Dane’s contract, it was the quick action of our Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin to step in and take the lead.
And just when we were are convinced that BAM is guilty of inefficiency, peep around and you will find more cans of worms.
The Malaysian Open athletics championships was once a “showcase of the finest jewellery in town”, attracting top athletes from this region at Stadium Merdeka.
Even golf-crazy Malaysians would stay away from the hallowed greens on a Sunday just to catch a glimpse of 1982 New Delhi Asian Games 100m gold medallist Rabuan Pit taking on his rivals, Josephine Mary attempting to improve on her 400m personal record, Samson Vellaboy or Nordin Jadi (200m, 400m) hitting the tape at full throttle.
Today, you only get to see about 100 fans in the stands at the Malaysian Open, perhaps 40% of them are volunteers. Infighting and bickering among officials seems to take the gold medal in most associations than seeing the sports grow.
Local sports associations need to be revamped massively, underperforming officials removed and replaced by young and bold individuals who are willing to take on new challenges and make the difference.
We need proper talent identification in place. The decision by the National Sports Institute (NSI) to educate school children and athletes on sports science is laudable.
I would like to appeal to our humble and energetic Sports Minister to put “arrogant” sports officials in their rightful place and carry on with plans and structures that will yield results in the long term. Nothing is ever achieved overnight.
We need to win that elusive gold medal in Rio. In Malaysia, sports bring together people from different races and religions.
Nelson Mandela, the legendary South African politician, once said, “Sports can be a diversion. Sports can be a hobby. And for a fortunate few, sports can change the world.”
That is how important a gold medal at the Olympics would be to every Malaysian. It will inspire our younger generations and most of all, create a bridge to achieving greater heights. But do we have the material to win an Olympic gold medal?
> Christopher Raj, is the CEO of ShekhinahPR, a sports public relations agency. He has spent close to 20 years working in various sports portfolios, including the Football Association of Malaysia and the Asian Football Confederation, as well as a number of years as a journalist. Chris’ twitter account is @chrisraj23