IN less than a week, all eyes will be on Japan, a country that promises the best Olympics action despite the Covid-19 challenges.
In Malaysia, there is one burning question – can we finally nail our first gold medal? Or maybe even two?
The wait has been long. Too long.
We have been sending a team to the Olympics since the 1956 Melbourne Games and we struck our first medal when badminton was introduced as an Olympics sport at the 1992 Barcelona edition.
That was when the famous Sidek brothers – Razif and Jalani – won a men’s doubles bronze medal but our neighbours Indonesia upstaged us to take their first-ever Olympics golds through lovebirds Alan Budi Kusuma (men’s singles) and Susi Susanti (women’s singles.)
Indonesia have gone on to add another five golds in badminton.
Malaysia, meanwhile, have collected a total of 11 medals since then – eight from badminton, two from diving, and one from cycling – but have not seen the glitter of gold.
Lee Chong Wei was the top performer, of course, with three silvers from the last three editions in Beijing (2008), London (2012) and Rio de Janeiro (2016.)
Rio was a Games to remember when we nicked four silvers (three badminton, one diving) and one bronze (cycling).
There will be 30 Malaysian athletes in Tokyo, two fewer than in the Rio team but the smaller number does not in any way mean poorer quality.
Indonesia, with their huge population, are only sending 28 athletes. What matters is quality.
On paper, we stand a chance in cycling, diving, archery, and badminton.
Rio bronze medallist Azizulhasni Awang has been shaping up so well. His physique is more impressive now, he has a better bike, he has focused on nutrition and he is even taking his own pillow and specially designed mattress to make sure he gets a good night’s sleep.
One has to just read his Facebook posting filled with war cries and positive sayings. It’s so motivating and inspiring that even I have restarted my morning runs (although that’s on hold no thanks to the Covid-19 restrictions).
He is determined and positive, I do hope Azizul’s effort will be rewarded with the gold he is looking for. It will not be easy as his taller and bigger opponents in cycling are ridiculously strong too but he has beaten them all before and the Pocket Rocketman is not one to be intimidated.
In diving, we can count on pool darlings Pandelela Rinong, Leong Mun Yee and Cheong Jun Hoong to overcome the strong Chinese divers for the top prize.
For once, badminton may not be our forte. But there is Lee Zii Jia.
Malaysia probably would have discarded badminton as a medal contender if not for the strong showing by Zii Jia en route to winning the All-England title in March.
The 23-year-old, Malaysia’s flag-bearer, has raised hopes indeed.
And based on the draw, this could be his potential pathway to the final - defending champion Chen Long of China in the last 16, second seed Chou Tien-chen of Taiwan in the quarter, Anthony Ginting of Indonesia or Anders Antonsen of Denmark in the semis, and either Kento Momota of Japan or Viktor Axelsen of Denmark in the final.
Besides Zii Jia, there are the young and dangerous Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik in the men’s doubles; old-timers Chan Peng Soon-Goh Liu Ying, who are equally determined to go one step better than their silver-medal effort in Rio; and Soniia Cheah and Lee Meng Yean-Chow Mei Kuan who want to make a difference in the women’s events.
The morale of the national badminton team is also high, largely due to the positive vibe that has been instilled by coaching director Wong Choong Hann and his team since he took over in late 2018.
The others in the contingent are not expected to do well but don’t write off top archer Khairul Anuar Mohamad.
I believe he has the potential to pull off a surprise. He has the experience and has consistently shown improvement under Korean coach Lee Jae-hyung - he just has to believe in himself.
For the first time, there are more Malaysian women athletes in the Olympics, it does not matter that some of them are there as wildcards.
Their presence in the Olympics itself is an indication of an achievement that many of us can only dream about.
As the countdown draws closer, the excitement mounts.
The nation will come together again to rally behind the athletes and pray for their safety as they battle for honour and against Covid-19 in this unprecedented Olympics.
I was at the 2004 Athens Olympics and watched Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia being crowned as the men’s singles champion. He shed tears of joy while we were all heartbroken as Malaysia returned empty-handed that year.
We came so close in Rio. Will we finally shed tears of joy this time?
* The writer wishes the Malaysian contingent all the best in Tokyo. Although winning medals will be a great morale-booster for the nation currently struggling with Covid-19, she will be happy if they give their best too. Jia You!