PODIUM Programme director Tim Newenham set a bold top-10 target for Malaysia at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Unfortunately, Malaysia missed the mark and the Englishman made the honourable decision to resign. StarSport’s RAJES PAUL spoke to the man, who was appointed to helm the multi-million programme in 2016, on his short stint in Malaysia. His departure leaves a void but his advice to all parties concerned is to address the differences openly and work purely on improving the athletes’ performance.
Q: Were you pressured to resign? Why didn’t you wait until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games?
A: People told me not to resign. They said that our team did okay at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. There were improvements and we won more medals. However, we did not make the top-10 finish among the competing nations in both these Games. I do take my job seriously and I genuinely take the responsibility. It’s the right thing to do. I got up very early in the morning two days ago (Tuesday) and decided that it was time for me to go. No one pressured me. I was a former athlete (in England) and I thrive on pressures. I take pride in what I do. This is the best decision.
Q: Now that you are leaving after two years and nine months, do you think the Podium Programme will be scrapped?
A: The focus should always be on the athletes. They have started a tailor-made programme, they have to keep the continuity going. It should not be stopped. The name can be changed, it does not matter, but we should not do the stop-and-start programme again. It takes eight years for an athlete to reach top level and win an Olympic medal. We cannot stop the programme and ask the athletes to go back to their states. We will lose four to five months. Other countries are moving forward, we will be left behind and we cannot afford to do that. It does not matter whether it’s a programme by NSI (National Sports Institute) or NSC (National Sports Council), what matters is for the athletes to continue to train, to take part in high-level competitions, to have plans and goals. This should continue.
Q: What are some of your highlights as the Podium chief?
A: I keep video clips of top performances, I just love watching these athletes break barriers. We had seven world champions (last year), I look at these as highlights and the supreme performances of these Malaysian world champions. There is this one particular clip of diver Cheong Jun Hoong, she beat the Chinese to win the world title, this has never been done before. China won all the 10 Asiad gold medals, they are dominant. To beat a Chinese, to do that perfect dive, to look at Jun Hoong, how she defied odds to win, it was just incredible. That’s the satisfaction.
Q: Are Malaysians quite critical over lack of results?
A: It’s all about how one perceives it. To me, the Asian Games is not a failure. Is winning a silver medal a failure? No, I don’t think so. For a person who has never won a silver at the Asiad, it’s an achievement. It has to be celebrated. Of course, we look at gold-medal feat and try to find ways on how to replicate it. If we keep focusing on gold and leave out all the other achievements like records, personal best, it can be demoralising for the athletes. There is more focus on the negative rather than positive. There is danger of only celebrating gold medals. It de-values the silver and bronze and it should not be. It is an achievement for an athlete to win a bronze with a personal best. Look at swimmer Welson Sim, he did not win a medal but broke his national record, that should be celebrated. Over time, these athletes will improve.
Q: What are the legacy that you have left behind?
A: My team have done a great job by raising the standard of services given to the athletes. For instance, the team have put together the protocol for physiotherapist, where they have this world standard programme to get an injured athlete back to high-level performance. They have set-up the concussion policy, which means we protect athletes suffering from concussion or showing signs of concussion. There is a way to handle them, it’s extremely dangerous to not treat players when they suffer concussion, it’s all well documented now. There is also an athlete management system, where all the data of athletes is recorded and stored. It has been moved from paper-based to filing to electronic storage. These information can now be downloaded from anywhere by the athletes or the sports science experts through their mobiles wherever they are based at. It’s now up to others to continue this.
I met one of the parents of an athlete at the airport (while waiting for them to come back from Jakarta), she said, the Podium Programme has really helped her son grow. She said that he used to be quite angry when he lost in competitions but now, he is able to manage his frustration, and she attributed it to the role of our psychologist. I was pleased to hear it.
Q: Do we have the right people to carry on with the work in Podium?
A: New personnel will take over - and things will change for sure. It’s good to review the programme and get feedback from the key stakeholders of this programme. There are questions to be answered and all parties must be honest. Everyone’s views should be heard too. Let’s focus on resources that can help athletes to improve. Let’s hope all will work together.
Q: Were there disappointments?
A: Oh yes, for sure. Whenever an athlete, you know who can do better, does not make it quite at that moment, I do really feel it. As a former athlete, I understand the athletes’ frustration and the coaches’ disappointments. I think, my heart rate sometimes, matches the athletes’ heart rate, the disappointment is great. But of course, you pick them up, support them and put them back on track. If we continue to do this, they will improve.
Q: Were there problems between National Sports Council (NSC) and National Sports Institute (NSI)?
A: Podium Programme is parked under NSI while NSC have their own roles too in managing the athletes. Both should work together but that’s not an easy task. Sometimes, what gets in the way are different opinions, misunderstanding. Whatever issues, it should be brought up and discussed and addressed openly. I think, that’s the way forward.
Q: What were the reactions when you informed the current and former Sports Ministers about your decision?
A: I was not able to meet Sports Minister (Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman), he was busy. I’ll meet up with him soon. I managed to speak with YB Khairy (Jamaluddin). The Podium Porgramme was his vision, he travelled all round to see what other countries were doing and eventually launched this (in 2016). He was surprised but understood. He was pleased with the successes of Podium. I believe sports transcends politics, no baggage and agenda, just sports purely. I was happy for the support given.
Q: What do you think that we need to improve?
A: Keep the purity of what the mission is. The mission is to help the athletes perform better, keep that in focus. No other agendas, no politics getting in the way, no other issues. There are always issues, not only in Malaysia, there are issues at all the other places I’ve worked before too. There are temptations to divert from that core mission – so we must keep the mission pure. It has to be genuine, not only to look good on paper. Keep the enjoyment and the focus. The athletes can see when you are genuine.
Q: What’s your next plan?
A: I’ll get another coffee (after this interview), that’s how far I’ve looked (he laughed). I’ve really been focused here, given all of my time here. I’ve given two months notice. I’ll assist in handing over the work to others and make sure there will be continuity that we spoke about earlier. After that, I will take a break and will go back home to my family in England. After that, I’m not sure.