The Americans are often runaway successes in the Olympics – or in any other sports that they passionately care for.Therein lies the reason for their success – passion.And a policy that gives everyone more than a fair chance of making it to the top. STARSPORT'S RAJES PAUL talks of her tour of the American sports system.
THE clapping was thunderous. Some 18,000 people put their hands together as reigning Olympic champion Stacy Dragila stepped out, pole in hand, to vault over a height of 4.62m. The crowd couldn’t stop clapping.
An Olympic meet? No, this was the annual Drake Relays, a university championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
That it attracted such a crowd, that it saw some 23 invited Olympians and many US national athletes speaks volumes for the kind of following the track and field events have on Americans.
Looking on, the Malaysian delegation from the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) could only feel awe, and to some extent, envy.
Malaysian sports – and athletics in particular – is sorely in need of the kind of culture that America breeds. But first, there has to be changes at all levels. And, despite what many may say, the first change needed is not at the grassroots, but at the top.
No more deadwood officials, no biased coaches, no double standards. The men at the top have to get the blinkers off and get as many athletes as possible to take part in mass programmes. Only then can the real cream be skimmed off the top.
Malaysia’s head of delegation of the Iowa and Florida tour, Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, who is also OCM vice-president, agrees that sweeping changes are needed.
“We have to start with the officials and leaders. Then, we can move to the grassroots. We also have to promote the right attitude towards cultivating a sports culture in our country,” said Jeffrey.
“The spirit of volunteerism is high in the US and American Athletic Union (AAU) play a significant role in promoting sports at grassroots level. In Malaysia, volunteerism is in its infancy.
“The AAU focus on sports programme for 98% of their athletes rather than giving attention to the 2% that are picked for the Olympics. I will agree with them that in order to produce the cream, we have to have a lot of milk. No milk, no cream - no grassroots, no Olympians.”
“In order to produce one Dragila, we have to focus on hundreds of pole vaulters rather than selecting a few and hoping one would turn out to be ‘the one’.”
Jeffrey is now hoping to launch a sports carnival for all in Sabah. Being the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) vice president, Jeffrey is also setting up a badminton academy at the Tambunan Secondary School.
National Sports Council (NSC) finance and administration director Zolkples Embong was also impressed with the running of the Drake Relays and noted that the organisers and participants were professional in their approach.
“There were no long speeches nor any dragging prize ceremonies. Every event started on time,” he said.
“How are we running our tournaments at the grassroots level? How can we attract mass participation? There is certainly a need to change the attitude and mindset of people in Malaysia. We have the facilities but there is still lack of effort in promoting the youth development programmes.”
Take the Negri Sembilan Open last week, for instance. It was the first big meet for the national athletes. And they forgot the electronic equipment.
OCM general manager M.P. Haridass Menon, meanwhile, pointed out that Malaysia does not have a sole body like the AAU to promote sports at the grassroots level.
“AAU promote sports only at the grassroots level. They do not get involved in preparing athletes for elite programmes. The US Olympic Council (USOC) are a separate body who focus more on the cream. In Malaysia, we do not have such a structure. There is certainly a need for someone to take up the challenge to develop the sports at this lower level,” said Haridass.
The Sports and Education Ministries look to be the right people to do. The two parties had their first meeting last month. and there are plans to take a serious look at developing sports at grassroots level.
It is a good move but talk is cheap. We have to carry out what we plan.
And learning from America is not about how good they are. They have weaknesses, too and those are things we should eliminate from the start.
The Americans are currently battling to implement a code of ethics for parents. While coaches and officials try to teach that winning is not everything in sports, some parents are so obsessed with success that they will go to any lengths.
We will be glad just to get a little more length, a little more height and a little more speed and endurance from our young.
For the record, besides Jeffrey, Haridass and Zolkples, the others in the Malaysian delegation to Iowa and Florida were Low Beng Choo (OCM vice president and Softball Association of Malaysia president); Chan Foong Keong (Table Tennis Association of Malaysia); Mohamed Kamil Othman (Terengganu State Sports Council director); Khairuddin Saisi (Malaysian Sports Schools Council assistant director); Normala Abdul Rashid (Perak State Sports Council sports officer) and Mohd Abdul Latif Endot (private secretary of Youth and Sports).