THEY are our heroes – the Olympians and Paralympians who went to Rio de Janeiro to compete. We almost won our first gold at the Olympics. Datuk Lee Chong Wei fought hard, and so too did the others to bring glory to themselves and to the country.
Then came Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, who sprinted from behind to win the men’s T36 100-meter dash at the Paralympics. For the first time ever, Negaraku was heard at the Games.
If that was not spectacular enough, two other Paralympians – Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli and Abdul Latif Romly – won men’s T20 long jump and F20 short putt respectively. Three golds in 20 hours, and two new world records. Not bad for Malaysia.
Behind every success there are stories of determination, true grit and lots of tears. For the disabled to make their mark is perhaps even tougher.
But negative comments about their disabilities did not affect them and in fact made them stronger.
They have shown us how to win in style. I am glad that Khairy Jamaluddin, the Youth and Sports Minister, has come out with the promise to give them the same rewards as winners among the able-bodied. The Ministry has taken a position that Paralympians must be taken seriously.
The Paralympic Games that was first held in 1960 in Rome has certainly come a long way. It started with 400 athletes competing from 23 countries. In Rio, there were 160 countries participating, involving 4,350 athletes.
There is hope for further glory in sports. To our athletes we entrust the future of sports.
As our Olympians and Paralympians have proven, they can go even further. But they need support, not just from the ministry or the relevant associations but from all of us.
We must make Malaysia a sporting nation, in the true sense of the word. To put it in perspective, we must be a sport-crazy country, which for now we are not.
Sports must be another marker of our excellence as a nation. We shouldn’t just participate; we must participate in earnest with the desire to be the best by competing with the best.
Winning is part of the equation. Sports associations must do a lot of soul-searching from now on. Sadly, in some associations, too much time is spent on petty things and too much effort wasted on petty squabbles.
It is time to move on. Football is supposed to be the great hope, but the Football Association of Malaysia is running out of ideas.
With the current management team, we are not getting any better. Instead, we are destined to see Malaysia’s ranking plummet even lower in years to come. Even the ambitious National Football Development Programme is in jeopardy if it is not executed as planned.
The Ministry must look at other sports as an alternative. Rugby is one. It has massive potential.
We are not too far behind the best in the region and we have the capacity to improve even more. Rugby is a different ballgame altogether – a rascal game played by gentlemen, bringing self-esteem and confidence among the players.
On the track and field, some say we are bogged down with issues like size and nutrition. Is there such a thing as a “sports gene” that makes a person better than others in sports?
Why is that the 100-meter and 200-meter races are won almost entirely by black athletes? Is Usain Bolt a superhuman one-off?
Why are the best middle distance runners coming out of Kenya, and not just Kenya but an area known as the Rift Valley? Can we train our athletes to run as fast as Usain Bolt in the near future?
These are theoretical questions and we have no ready answers. We make assumptions about a lot of things.
Countries with big populations are supposed to excel more in sports. While this is true about the United States, Russia and China, India, which is the second most populous country in the world, is doing badly in the Olympics.
When you use per capita data to rank the achievements at the Olympics based on gold medals won, the US, Russia and China are not even in the top ten. Finland, with a population of 5.4 million people and winning 101 golds so far, is top.
The bubble burst when our Paralympians won the gold. Yes, the Olympics is different. But would anyone imagine a Singaporean boy beating Michael Phelps in the pool at Rio? Or the fact that Korean and Chinese athletes are beating the Americans and Russians in events like short track speed skating in the Winter Olympics?
Sports excellence begins in schools. If we believe sports is about scantily-dressed athletes running or swimming to win, we are in trouble. If we allow insist Physical Exercise (PE) teachers in wear a dress fit for a kenduri, we have a problem. If we believe there is nothing in sports for our children, we can never go far to be a sporting nation.
We should be competing with the world’s best, not among jaguh kampung (village competitors).
Money alone is not enough. The infrastructure must be in place. But more so, the psyche of the people. Winning is an attitude. Attitude matters in sports.
To be a sporting nation, we must begin by taking a sporting attitude towards our young.
Sporting heroes are made of tough individuals like Lee Chong Wei, his colleagues at the Olympics and the three Paralympians who made us proud at Rio.
We want many more like them!
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.