IF the Vietnam SEA Games were the acid test for Malaysian athletics, they definitely passed with flying colours.
The Malaysian Amateur Athletic Union (MAAU) had put their trust in a small 22-member squad, comprising mostly of young athletes and a sprinkle of established stars in the prime of their careers.
Quality was given the nod over quantity, with the middle distance runners, who were the main suppliers of gold medals in previous editions of the Games, conspicuously absent in Hanoi.
But whatever worries there were on the national athletes' ability to shine or meet the six-gold target in 21 events evaporated on the first day of competition itself.
Nazmizan Mohammad put Malaysian athletics back on the front pages with an emphatic win in the 100m clocking 10.45s last Sunday.
The 22-year-old university student proved his feat was no fluke three days later by bagging the 200m gold as well with a personal best of 21.05.
He became just the third Malaysian, and the first since 1967, to win a sprints double in the Games.
Nazmizan's effort sparked renewed enthusiasm within the athletics camp, and the gold target was easily surpassed.
Mohd Malik Tobias' victory in the decathlon on Thursday night took the final tally to eight gold medals, the same haul achieved by the much bigger squad in the 2001 Games.
The other gold medal winners were Mohd Shahrrulhaizy (men's 20km walk), Yuan Yufang (women's 20km walk), Loo Kum Zee (high jump), Mohd Shahrul Amri Suhaimi (long jump) and Noraseela Khalid (400m hurdles).
The Vietnam Games also launched the career of several youngsters.
Mohd Shahrrulhaizy, Mohd Shahrul, Mohd Hazuan Zainal and Ahmad Najawa Aqra came to the fore while pre-tournament favourites Malik Tobias, Kum Zee and Yufang delivered as promised.
“Not all athletes who were expected to shine delivered while there were several young talents who upset the formbook,” said team manager R. Annamalai.
“Our decision to expose the upcoming youngsters has paid dividends and we will make sure these athletes will be given the proper training and exposure to develop further.”
He also confirmed that the training programmes in Germany for hurdler Moh Siew Wei and 400m runner Mohd Zaiful Zainal Abidin will be re-evaluated following the duo's below par performances.
Siew Wei, who holds the national record of 13.39 for the 100m hurdles, secured bronze with a poor 13.78. Zaiful was a total flop, finishing fifth in 48.13.
The Yufang controversy highlighted Malaysia's problem in being over reliant on certain athletes.
Yufang deserves utmost praise for her resilience and determination in overcoming a health scare to deliver a gold in the 20km walk.
But the problem would not have arisen if there had been other dependable athletes to call upon to fill Yufang's shoes while she recovers.
“It is very disheartening to note that there was no Malaysian in almost all the middle and long distance events,” said the MAAU president, Datuk Khalid Yunus.
“We have several juniors who are slowly moving up the ranks in these events and our main task after the SEA Games will be to ensure that this group will be ready for the challenges in 2005.”
The encouraging overall performances proved that Malaysian athletics is well on the road to recovery.
But the shortage of quality athletes in certain events and the need to create a continuous supply of juniors to take over from the veterans needs to be addressed immediately.