It was only a college football match between two universities – Georgia State and Appalachian State – at the Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta but it felt like a top-notch National Football League (NFL) game I often watch on television.
I joined thousands of fans, young and old, freezing in the cold, at the open stadium cheering on the home team. (I have to admit the format of the game is rather tricky).
The Georgian Panthers were mauled 27-56 by the visitors. Despite the crushing blow, the home fans cheered them on.
I was awed by two things – the fans’ undivided support and also with the venue. It was at this same stadium that American sprinter Carl Lewis ended his last Olympics with a gold in the long jump; Michael Johnson nailed the 200m and 400m golds; and Gail Devers starred in the women’s 100m during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
When the Olympic flame was extinguished after two weeks of action, the sprawling stadium did not turn into a white elephant. Instead, it became the home of Atlanta’s baseball team Braves for 20 years before Georgia State University bought it for US$25mil from the government as the home for the Panthers.
In Malaysia, some sports teams do not even have a place to call home.
And some of our local fans are like Jekyll and Hyde – they show support when the team win but shun them when things go wrong.
In the US, the deep-rooted sports culture, the grand sports facilities, equal opportunity for all – white or coloured, men or women – did not happen overnight. And it is especially so in Atlanta, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr.
This state was in ruins several decades ago, some places burnt to the ground. Racial discrimination was at its height and coloured people were treated like dirt.
I was almost in tears when I walked around King’s National Historic Park – the stories, the pictures, the videos, the speeches - depicted the agonised life of one ethnic group just because of the colour of their skin. But that was before they fought their way for equal rights.
It took a courageous man like King Jr to change that – even to the point of death fighting against racial segregation. He was shot dead at his motel balcony.
It took the brave woman Rosa Parks to stand up against authority when she refused to sit at the “black section” at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama - even to the point of imprisonment. I probably became emotional because it hit close to home too.
I’ve covered sports for more than two decades now – there is discrimination and biased selections at different levels. There are stereotypes and cultural barriers.
Our selection system is flawed and it will be for as long as we don’t change our mindset and accept each other as equals.
There have been emails from disgruntled parents seeking justice when their son or daughter miss the selection cut. (Of course, some parents are just overbearing.)
Top athletes do not get jobs as coaches after retirement although they have all the qualifications. Does one have to have a certain education background or success in sports? Is it the colour of the skin? Or is it how well one knows the selectors? These are questions often asked.
There have been “Datuks” who try to get their children into teams via the back door – not by merit.
It’s hard if the leaders in the schools and universities are narrow minded.
I’m not saying the system in the US is perfect – they have their issues too but they have come a long way in fixing racial bias, gender discrimination and inequality to make it a level playing field for all. It can be seen by the scores of coloured world champions to come out of the US – blacks, Asians, Hispanics and many others. Even the half-Thai called Tiger Woods.
In King Jr’s famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech, he ended: “Free at last, free at last, great God Almighty, we are free at last.”
I’m dreaming for a day too when we Malaysians will be free from all the things that divide us – both in sports and life in general.
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