Although national athletes who excel in their sports do so for the glory, a littlehelp in the form of cash incentives by the Government does go a long way inensuring they have a comfortable future. RASHVINJEET S. BEDI reports.
COME December, Malaysian athletes will be under the spotlight at the Doha Asian Games. Naturally, they will be gunning for medals, and if they do, they will be gaining not only pride and glory for self and country, but also rewards that can be counted in terms of ringgit and sen.
The reason? Incentives are given by the Government for winning medals at the Asian Games – an individual gold is worth RM80,000; a silver is worth RM40,000; and a bronze will be rewarded with RM20,000.
This money could come in handy for athletes who have dedicated most of their time to training for their respective sport, with many forsaking education in the pursuit of medals.
“It is a good way of honouring athletes for their effort and time. Besides winning a title, they have something else to look forward to,” said Lt-Col Wong Ah Jit, former director of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM).
The incentives are useful especially for athletes involved in sports that don’t have much commercial value such as wushu, swimming, karate and lawn bowls.
Former national Wushu exponent Ho Ro Bin, 32, couldn’t stress enough the importance of the incentives. He has received RM363,000 and he is the third highest recipient of the government incentives.
“They were very important in my generation where the monthly allowances were not that much,” said Ro Bin who took 10 years to save enough money to enable him to buy a house and a car.
“For a Malaysian, those are the two main things. The money was useful although I still had to take a loan,” he said.
His incentives have come from winning medals at every level possible from the SEA Games to the Asian Games and right up to the World Championships.
Ro Bin, who now coaches the national wushu juniors, advises his charges to concentrate on the sport only if they can be the best in the game so that they can benefit from the incentives.
But he said, “I believe the youngsters want to represent Malaysia because of the pride in doing so, not because of the incentives,” he said.
National Wushu exponent Lim Yew Fai, 23, received RM80,000 for winning gold at last year's World Wushu Championships in Vietnam. He bought a car with most of the money and saved the rest.
“You cannot think of incentives because of the pressure. You won't be able to concentrate and are bound to make mistakes,” he said.
Despite this, the incentives are a source of income and motivation for Lim.
“I would still go for it (representing the country) although maybe for not as long as I would have wanted to. I would have to think of my future as well,” he said.
Swimmer Lim Keng Liat, 26, will represent Malaysia for the last time in Doha. He has received RM280,000 for his exploits at the Commonwealth, Asian and SEA Games.
“I need both sport and money. Excelling in sport requires financial support. Our incentives are considered okay but it is not a lot compared to many other countries,” said Keng Liat, who has used the money to invest in property and is now planning on opening up a swimming academy.
“It is quite important for swimming as we depend a lot on it for support and motivation,” he added.
It is possible, however, to make a career out of sports such as bowling, badminton, squash and golf, providing you have reached world-class level.
In these sports, Malaysian athletes are constantly taking part in competitions that offer a substantial amount of prize money.
Multi-sport games, however, are extremely important to the country as they reflect a nation's sporting progress.
The highest earner of government incentives so far is bowler Shalin Zulkifli with RM561,024 that she has received since 1993.
Nicol David is close behind at RM558,750 and she could overtake Shalin this week depending on her performance at the World Championships in Belfast.
“It’s simple for me. I’m not in it for the money. It is just a bonus,” said Shalin.
“When you think about the money, you are not focussing on the real thing. It is hard though to stay to that ideal nowadays.”
But incentives can help, especially for those sports that don't have much prize money, Shalin added.
“A lot of us spend most of it although we invest in things such as property,” said Shalin who would prefer a pension system.
“Instead of giving a lump sum, we should do it the South Korean way, where they pay you for the rest of your life. There would be no need to worry every month,” she said.
Shalin still feels that she has many years in her to perform at the highest level.
“You must love whatever you do so it doesn't feel like work. I have been working hard every day for the past 17 years.
“You must be sincere and have the right reasons for doing something. I have seen athletes who think of incentives and don't last long,” said Shalin who also runs her own coaching business.
Datuk Sieh Kok Chi, the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) Secretary, believes that the money earned is justified by the athletes' sacrifices.
“Life after sports is equally important. Athletes have to save for a rainy day,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it's not about money. It’s about how well you prepare for life after sport.”
Different countries have different ways of rewarding their athletes, be it through awarding scholarships or giving allowances.
In America, scholarships are a norm while a Singaporean who wins a gold medal in the Olympics will receive S$1mil from the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).
In South Korea, successful athletes are excluded from its compulsory military service.
At the end of the day, however, it is performance on the field that matters and this depends solely on the athlete.
As Sieh put it, “There must be a realisation that these athletes are already good. Incentives might make them concentrate and try harder. If money could make them much better, it would be saying it is possible to transform a donkey into a racehorse.”
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