Size matters when it comes to gold

DATUK Azizulhasni Awang needed more than just perseverance, tenacity and luck to win a medal in the men’s keirin at the Tokyo 2020 final.

He was at a disadvantage because of his height. He is 1.68m while Jason Kenny of Great Britain and Dutch Harrie Lavreysen are 1.77m and 1.80m respectively. Yet, the Pocket Rocketman did his country proud. He won the silver in the cycling event at the Olympics.

There is an article written by Trinity, a renowned travel writer from Indonesia, who was a sportsperson herself, in assessing her country’s performance.

She pointed out that Indonesia is among 10 countries that have the shortest people in the world on the average. The average height of Indonesian men is 1.63m, while for women it is 1.55m.

Malaysians, too, are no taller than them. Azizulhasni’s height is slightly more than the average height of our men, 1.64m. Malaysian women stand at 1.53m, slightly shorter than Indonesian women.

Among Southeast Asians, Singaporeans are the tallest, with an average height of 1.71m for males and 1.64m for females. Even Bruneians are taller than us (1.66m for males, 1.55m for females).

Among Asian nations, Chinese men register an average height of 1.72m and 1.60m for females. China is at number 53 among 130 nations in terms of average height according to a latest survey.

To put it in perspective, the best known Chinese sportsman, Liu Xiang, is 1.89m tall. He shocked the sporting world when he won gold in the 110m hurdle at the Athens Olympics in the 2004.

Usain Bolt, who is 1.89m tall and ran the record-breaking time of 9.58 seconds in the 100m dash, is taller than the average height of male athletes participating in track and field events in the Olympics and major sporting events since 1976. Their average height is 1.82m.

The highest number of medals in the Olympics is offered in track and field events and swimming, with 48 and 37, respectively. But it is doubtful if we are ever getting any. As Trinity argues, the earlier we come to the realisation that we are at a disadvantage in certain sports, the better.

The ugly truth is, size matters in sports. What has happened in the last six decades? Why are the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese taller than us? Because of that, their sportsmen and women are making waves not only in the Summer Olympics, but in the Winter Olympics, too. Have they been eating food that we are not?

Is our “biological make-up” preventing us from performing well in sports? Or is it true that a certain race has an “innate skill” for a particular sport? Genes, according to this theory, has a say.

Jon Entine wrote Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports, And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It. According to Entine, of the 500 fastest times recorded in 100m races, 498 are won by athletes of West African descent.

Why are the Kenyans so good in middle distance and the marathons? In fact, out of the 20 fastest marathons, 17 were won by Kenyans. In a period of 18 years, prior to the London Olympics in 2012, Kenyans won 93 medals, 32 of them gold in long- and middle-distance races in international meets.

What is stopping us from producing world-class athletes, those with high quality and calibre? Sports science is changing the world of sports. Sportsmen and women are running faster, jumping further and soaring higher. More records are being broken at the international level.

But where are we? The truth is we are not a sporting nation. Sports takes a backseat in our pursuit of economic immortality. Schools are churning out students who excel academically, but that’s about all. Is it the food we eat? Is the eco-system not supporting the development of our sports? Or does our mindset towards sports need resetting?

It is about time to rethink our strategy. We must know where our strengths and weaknesses lie. It has to be a whole-of-nation approach. The private sector must be a critical part of sports development. The saddest thing is that our sports blueprint is not sustainable. A new minister will come out with his new plan. We must relook sports in schools. The road to the Olympics begins in school.

We are still in the mode of thinking that participation is key, not winning titles. It reminds me of the character Harold Abrahams in the 1981 movie Chariots Of Fire who said with conviction: “I run to win. If I can’t win, I won’t run.” Our athletes should inculcate that attitude from now on.

Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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