Sunday August 29, 2004

Dr Jega says our athletes’ performance
in Athens far worse than that in Sydney

CHEF-de-mission Datuk Dr M. Jegathesan could finally come out and say it: Malaysia have failed miserably in the Athens Olympics.
After the last of the Malaysian hopes, Elaine Teo, flopped on Thursday, Dr Jega admitted that the performance in Athens was worse than that of Sydney four years ago when Malaysia also came back empty-handed.
“If we compare the two, we have to look at the capability and potential. The teams to Athens were better prepared and had more potential and that was why we had targeted four medals.
“So, this is a big failure. Countries with far less infrastructure, lower GNP and poorer per capita income have managed medals but we could not. We should have performed better,” he said.
Dr Jega, however, pointed to pockets of improvement.
“Lim Keng Liat made history by becoming the first swimmer to qualify for an Olympic semi-final. And Josiah Ng also made history by finishing sixth in the keirin, the best-ever Malaysian performance in cycling. Both are big sports in the Olympics.”
But, he added, that the badminton performances were very bad. The world number one pair of Choong Tan Fook-Lee Wan Wah and the world number three men’s singles player Wong Choong Hann made early exits.
Elaine Teo was an even bigger disappointment – with a 10-minute cameo appearance on the Athens stage, almost mirroring her predecessor, Lee Wan Yuen, who also made a quick exit from the Sydney Olympics.
Dr Jega, being the analytical medical man he is, put it all down to the A factor and the G factor.
“The A factor is Athens – the heat, the open-air swimming pool, the heated water in the pool. All these contributed to the failure.
“To be honest, no major record-breaking feats were achieved here by anyone. There were a few records but they did not fall like tenpins.”
The G factor, he said, was the group or gloom factor.
“When the badminton boys failed, there was a gloom and it affected everybody. When the weightlifter failed to even get a starting lift, people were shocked and it rubbed off on others. They were all afraid,” he said.
So, where do we go from here?
Dr Jega was looking away from home, at least for an elite few. “We need to have a broader base of athletes. And from this base, we need to pick a few and send them abroad, not for a few months but for a long, long time,” he said, describing what he calls his “total immersion” theory.
“The athletes should practically become Americans or French or wherever they are training. They must imbibe the cultures, the aggressive attitude and the competitiveness of these people. That’s the only way to go.
“And if the athletes are in Malaysia, they must have discipline. They must be willing to get up at 4am and train even if the body says no.
“They must be able to tear themselves away at 10pm even if they are at a party and thoroughly enjoying themselves. The discipline must come in every aspect of their lives, not just in training.”
And, he said, the National Sports Council should stop taking over the role of the sports associations.
“They just have to be the financing body. They can set regular targets for the sports associations. If the targets are not met according to schedule, they can cut the funding.
“But the associations know best about their sports. They should be allowed to do their jobs.”
In one sense, though, the Olympic debacle is almost a blessing in disguise.
“We have a new minister, we have this failure. Now, let’s start anew. Let’s get together with a national summit on sports and really decide on what we want to do and how we want to do it.
“And let’s decide on how much sports matters to us. How essential is it to us? Or is it just a frivolous pastime?”
For now, he said, there were many majlis pelancaran (launchings) and majlis makan (receptions).
“And then, all is forgotten.” Yes, Malaysians do forget – and even forgive – easily.
But Athens will be remembered for a long time. It was the homecoming of the Olympics. And the Malaysian team will be coming home without a thing to show.

Saturday August 28, 2004

Malaysia misses out on medals - and more

By Ioannis Gatsiounis

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Olympic athletes are topping the local news, but not for the reasons that one would hope. With the Athens Games nearing their close, Malaysia hasn't won a single medal, though it earned two in Sydney four years ago when it aspired to amass more trophies and recognition in future Olympics.
The lack of any bronze, silver or gold led Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to deliver a rare diatribe on Thursday: "Malaysia is not poor, we have food, health facilities. How about countries which don't even have these? Where did they get the energy and ability to win?" Then he added, "Our abilities must have stagnated while other countries have improved and gone beyond us."
It was clear Abdullah was thinking beyond the Olympics. In recent weeks the government has shed its confident exterior to reveal an introspective, head-scratching core. Instead of continuing to try to superficially boost Malaysian confidence through self-congratulatory press conferences, it has begun to acknowledge that there is a major gap between dreams and reality here; between the long-term vision mapped out by former dictator Mahathir Mohammed and the government's and public's gumption and determination to see it through.
Two years ago, for instance, the government thought technology and innovation would pave the way for Malaysia's future. But very few research and development (R&D) projects have been commercialized, and Malaysians in general haven't embraced the creative, competitive spirit of the globalized world as expected. The country's science, technology and innovations minister earlier this month urged a greater focus on R&D and vowed to provide further incentives, despite the fact that numerous incentives already are in place.
Meanwhile, top officials have been lamenting the loss of their "best and brightest" to overseas markets. Talk has switched from calling Malaysia a "model islamic democracy" to how to actually achieve one. (Abdullah is set to release a book detailing his concept of Hadhari Islam, which seeks to meld modernity and Islam into a working whole.)
So what's gone wrong?
Malaysia's performance at the Athens Games has people talking because it is seen to provide clues. "If you don't do well, you have to work harder," said Abdullah. "If you train three hours a day, maybe you should train five hours a day. If you have done five, you have to do more than five. You must improve, that's all." Added an editorial writer in a local Chinese paper: "Malaysians have placed too much emphasis on economic expansion and the speed with which we accumulate wealth, such that we have overlooked the advancement of social and human development, including the development in sports."
The irony is that Malaysia has a high regard for record-setting. Walk into any local bookstore and you will find The Malaysian Book of World Records prominently displayed. In it are records on "the largest service center", "the smallest frog" and "the number of heads shampooed in one day at a shopping mall". It is part of a government-scripted confidence-boosting campaign that inspired the national slogan, "Malaysia boleh" (Malaysia can). Few utter it with a straight face anymore, recognizing the fact that mere words are hollow. And on Thursday the prime minster urged Malaysians to find "the real determination to win and perform well".
Letter writers to the small handful of Malaysia's independent websites have called their nation one of "false pride" (ie, reveling in meager achievements) and accused Malaysians of opposing genuine competition. Indeed, the substance of Malaysian pride is tested any time Malaysians step into the international arena - and what has happened at the Olympics has led to much-needed introspection, at least for some.
Others simply have tuned out. At the central train station in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, two big-screen televisions were on: one showed the Olympics, the other motorcycle road racing. Only the latter drew a crowd. At food stalls, pro-wrestling continues to dominate the airwaves.
The government is partly responsible for the country's woes in Athens, and beyond. Whereas leaders of other nations attended the games' opening ceremonies, as a writer for a popular weblog here noted, "Our senior politicians were not to be seen...when Malaysia comes out with bizarre things like 'The longest ketupat [rice cooked in palm leaves] in the world' in Malaysia, you can see senior politicians officially opening and acknowledging such achievements."
Abdullah said the government is willing to give Olympic athletes the facilities they need, but they "must have the focus and determination to succeed".
A traditional dancer here, no stranger to competition, said some Malaysian athletes assumed they could not succeed internationally, whether it was because of physical size or fate. After Malaysian marathon swimmer Abdul Malik Mydin swam across the British Channel last year, Mahathir was dismayed by how many Malaysians assumed Mydin had been blessed with supernatural power.
When people succeed or fail, Malaysians often attribute it to their rezeki (luck or karma), as in: "It must be our rezeki to win this award three years in a row," or, "People say popular artists in my movies attract the audience and that they are part of my 'winning formula'. To me, it's just rezeki."
But the dancer said that doesn't stop Malaysians from hoping their Olympic athletes will do them proud, or ward off disappointment, empathizing when they don't. "It's really very difficult to face that kind of feeling," she said.
But that's where real progress usually starts - grasping the hard facts. It's a reality Malaysia slowly appears to be coming around to. Sooner or later it will have no choice.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"