SEA Games failure: The terminal decline of Malaysian sports culture

·7-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JUNE 16 — My view of the city’s velodrome is blocked by the MRT station so I cannot tell how the race ends or if there is a race.

A metaphor to capture the state of sports in Malaysia: It’s around but no one can be sure as haphazard national constructions block the truth.

A segue to Malaysia’s uninspired 2021 Hanoi SEA Games. Fine, disappointing outing. Do not be fooled by the sports ministry’s spin of the 39 golds gathered.

The tally requires points of reference.

Five other countries ended up ahead of us — in order: Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore. Who was ahead offends enough but when the five behind are listed — Myanmar (nine golds), Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste — the embarrassment should be self-evident.

Malaysia could have sent geriatrics and still have landed at sixth. So, ouch! Friends quip that probably Malaysian athletes were so confused that the 2021 SEA Games was held in 2022 that they lost their bearings. Our citizens are prone to terminal confusion according to our senior politicians.

A test of sporting culture

Many observe, SEA Games is a fool’s errand; Malaysia should rather eye success at the Asian Games later this year and the Olympics. Prestige competitions.

Perhaps. But the Asean-only SEA Games gauges the overall strength of each of the members' sporting culture.

While the world-level competitions are pinnacles for sportsmen, the relatively low expectations for minor nations there means they can hide behind the limited successes of select elite athletes to cover up the colossal lack of sporting pedigree back home.

A clutch of silvers from badminton, diving and cycling does not equate to broader excellence in those sports or other sports.

The SEA Games may be lower hanging fruits but it challenges Asean nations to compete at volume and measure our sports cultures.

It tests our weakest links far more than our strongest parts in the chain of our national sports. Possibly the best barometer to read Malaysia’s health.

It’s not that Vietnam ended with 205 gold medals — good luck figuring out Vovinam, Xiangxi and Kurash — but that perennial giants Thailand mustered 92 under those circumstances. Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore also got on with it far better than Malaysia.

Vovinam is a Vietnamese martial art born in 1938. The rest of Asean is unacquainted with Vovinam but they picked it up. Vietnam won six of the golds, the other nine by the rest, like Indonesia and Myanmar. Seven nations won medals in it, but not Malaysia.

The Philippines and Indonesia probably set up basic clubs to learn Vovinam, inviting exponents from other combat sports like tae kwon do, judo or karate to adjust and compete.

This is not to insist Malaysia should take up every random sport introduced at the SEA Games. However, all martial arts in competition are similar. For instance, Vietnam competed in pencak silat and won six gold medals.

An adjustment was possible if Malaysia was flexible.

Malaysia athletes during the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games at the Philippine Arena, Bocaue, Philippines, November 30, 2019. — Reuters pic
Malaysia athletes during the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games at the Philippine Arena, Bocaue, Philippines, November 30, 2019. — Reuters pic

Malaysia athletes during the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games at the Philippine Arena, Bocaue, Philippines, November 30, 2019. — Reuters pic

But it is not just fringe sports.

In Track & Field, Malaysia has shrunk as a competitor. From being the overall winner of the sport in the yesteryears, the country is a has been. Even in our home games in 2017, Malaysia mustered only eight golds. This time, it is only five golds with no wins on the track. Five from forty-seven gold medals.

The same at swimming. A miserable two from 38. This is a sport Malaysia has invested consistently in. It is not a new sport, but by the way the results look, it is a forgotten sport.

And the list grows long.

Some point to the podium programme which was dropped last year and reinstituted early this year as a reason for the massive dip. But that programme relates to our elite athletes and they are the minority.

They offer quality wins but not a large number of wins. There’s only that many diving events.

How we play sports

By large, the SEA Games is amateur. Football, basketball and the precious few professional sports are exceptions.

To have broad success in the SEA Games a nation must possess widespread competency in a large number of sports among its citizens. That is tied to national associations, state authorities, facilities and access, linkages in educational structure and the general attitude towards competitive sports.

Bar a few national associations, the overall picture especially in long-standing associations like in football, badminton and hockey is abysmal.

There are no national plans with any conviction or consistency. The extent in which the associations succeed in mismanaging the future of the respective sports is so comprehensive it would be amazing to know they were accidents.

By the way, Track & Field is dead in Malaysia.

With the exception of the dedicated coaches ageing with time, who fight personal and public battles to train those they find without adequate resources, there is not much of a flame in the cauldron.

How many schools in the country actually have working running tracks? How many students at primary are taught the Fosbury Flop — which determines the size of the talent pool for high jumpers? What about hurdlers, what is the official count of those actually trained? There is so much reliance on the two or three sports schools that in every given year there might be six pole-vaulters trained yearly. Needless to say, constant competitions with structure and process are absent.

Further, sports programmes are tied to the facilities.

The Malaysian men’s football team played its biggest match this year at the National Stadium at Bukit Jalil to qualify for the Asian Cup, two days ago.

This is the stadia for the highest profiled sport in the country where most of the money spent by both government and corporate sponsors, and it is a mess. Waterlogged, bumpy and if truth be told, unplayable.

If the most vital sports asset, our Wembley, Maracana or Melbourne Cricket Ground, is an utter disgrace, what is available for tens of thousands of active footballers in the country? The young in the country play in horror pitches.

And that’s football. What about the facilities for any number of sports here in Malaysia.

When speaking about facilities it is then about local councils. They are the key managers of sports facilities.

I do not want to not spew condemnations about the situation, but the absolute disinterest local councils have shown towards both the construction, maintenance and management of sports facilities is impossible to ignore.

I started with a reference to the Kuala Lumpur Velodrome. Cyclists train there now because the Nilai velodrome’s distance is inconvenient. But they can only train when there is no rain, experts cannot guarantee the surface when it rains.

It might have something to do with the velodrome functioning as a pasar malam for years in-between. But they have decided to return to it, now. Small blessings it is used for its actual purpose even if not upgraded.

The SEA Games debacle reflects the overall mismanagement of sports, and in many instances the absence of it in our lives.

Success at the Games, is highly possible. It is about amateur sports with low calibre competition. However, success at a wide number of sports in it would indicate an uptick in our sports situation.

A change now in direction would take years to produce results but those painful steps are necessary. A comprehensive and far-reaching change in the way sports is treated and encouraged in Malaysia.

Either that or all of us can be witnesses to the stage-by-stage disintegration of our sports to the point of decimation. But we will still have spin doctors to tell us it has not gone to hell, not completely.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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