HIGH jump is one sport that Malaysia dominated in the region.
With the 2005 Manila SEA Games being the exception, our high jumpers have never failed to bring a gold medal since Baljit Singh first leapt to glory when the biennial games was staged on home soil in 1977.
The feat was then emulated by Hoo Yoon Wah (1979,1981), Ramjit Nairu (1983,1985), Loo Cwee Peng (1987,1991,1993), S. Kesavan (1989), Loo Kum Zee (1995,1997,1999,2001,2003), Lee Hup Wei (2007,2009,2011,2019) and Nauraj Singh (2013,2015,2017).
Despite the dominance, the country had to wait until 1996 to be represented at the Olympic Games – thanks to Kum Zee’s brilliance in Chiangmai 1995.
The Ipoh-born athlete won his first SEA Games gold in convincing fashion, soaring to a new national and Games record of 2.24m to secure himself a trip to Atlanta Olympics. He surpassed the B qualifying mark of 2.23m.
“Being the first high jumper to qualify for Olympics was definitely a dream come true. In all honesty, I never thought I stood any chance at all before that, ” said Kum Zee, now 46, whose efforts 26 years ago remains the joint Games record after being matched by Nauraj and Hup Wei in KL 2017.
“I had my coach (German Uwe Freimurth) to thank for turning this dream into a reality. He told me as long as I have faith in the programme prepared by him and work hard, I’d get there one day. True enough, it did and I qualified at 22!”
However, Kum Zee’s highly-anticipated debut at the Centennial Olympic Stadium turned out to be one to forget as he was downed with food poisoning just days before the competition.
Kum Zee went on to compete but only managed a dismal 2.15m to finish 30th in the 38-man qualifying round. He would need to surpass his own personal best as the cut was set at 2.28m.
Kum Zee admitted he was crushed by how things panned out in Atlanta.
“It was devastating. After months of thorough preparations for the biggest moment of my life, this had to happen, ” lamented Kum Zee.
“I suffered from stomach upset en route to Atlanta, we were flying from Europe following a training stint there. It totally ruined my ‘appetite’ for the Games.
“I carried on competing because that’s what it takes for me to return as an Olympian.
“I was feeling weak and struggled as I was under medication.
“The only motivation I had was to outperform my rival (Wong Yew Tong) from Singapore, who won silver in Chiangmai.
“I could not bear the thought of losing to him as he was probably there on wild card as he did not meet the qualifying mark.
“With all the strength and might I was able to gather, I somehow managed to register 2.15m in the qualifying round.
“Still, it remains a nightmarish experience until today. Apart from being an Olympian there was nothing else that I could reminisce as good memory.
“If there’s anything to salvage, I must say that I’m still proud to have qualified on merit.”
Barring the unillustrious campaign, Kum Zee can still hold his head high as he is one of Asia’s best high jumpers.
Besides winning five successive SEA Games gold until his retirement, Kum Zee also made the country proud by clinching a bronze at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games and coming in third on four occasions at the Asian Track and Field Championships, now known as the Asian Athletics Championships.
But Kum Zee believes he could have achieved greater things.
“I didn’t fully realise my potential. If I could turn back time, I wished I could have done better. Things could have been so different if I based myself overseas, possibly Europe, to train and compete with the world’s top jumpers, ” he said.
“I might have won a couple of medals at the Commonwealth Games and became a finalist at the Olympics.
“It also didn’t help the fact that Uwe was dismissed in 1997. After managing 2.24m in 1995, he actually set an even more ambitious 2.39m target for me. It’s a shame because I thought we’re on the right track.”
Upon retirement in 2003, Kum Zee has transformed himself into a respectable career in banking.
Having started his career as a clerk with Maybank at 30, the father of two is now the Business Relationship Manager (lending and funding) in Ipoh.
Kum Zee is married to Hii Sieu Ngiik, a former 100m hurdle national record holder and the couple are blessed with two children Ulrich, 22, and Ursula, 17.
“I’m glad with where I am at this point of life. I have a stable job and a happy family, ” added Kum Zee.
“Post-retirement is never easy for any athlete, moreover if you don’t have an adequate tertiary education.
“I’m grateful to have joined Maybank. I was employed by them for many years but by virtue of being a national athlete.
“I started my banking career late and slowly worked my way up! It’s all good in the end.”
After being away from the sporting limelight, Kum Zee made a notable return at the Perak Sukma three years ago by leading the hosts to a creditable fifth placing in the medal standings with 37 golds.
And last year, Kum Zee was also elected into the Malaysian Olympians Association (MOA) office bearers as the treasurer.
“I have been laying low since I retired and not getting involved in the local sports scene, ” he said.
“But on second thought, I feel it’s also about time that I give back to the sport that I love.”