Malaysia organised the XVI Commonwealth Games from Sept 11 to 21, 1998. The 20th anniversary of that auspicious and historic event was yesterday.
Kuala Lumpur ’98, or Sukom ’98 as it was better known in Malaysia, created many firsts. It was the first Commonwealth Games to be held in Asia; the first to include team sports like cricket, hockey, netball and rugby 7s; and the first not declared opened by the Queen or a member of the Queen’s family, but by Malaysia’s 10th Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Ja’afar Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
Kuala Lumpur ’98 also saw Malaysia achieving its best ever results in the Commonwealth Games, finishing fourth with 10 gold medals.
My reflections and memories of the XVI Commonwealth Games are from the start of the bidding process in 1990 to its closure on Sept 21, 1998.
The success of organising the 1989 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur encouraged the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) to study the feasibility of hosting the XVI Commonwealth Games in 1998.
When I attended the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) general assembly in Auckland, New Zealand, during the XIV Commonwealth Games in January 1990, I met John Stothart, who was part of the team who successfully bade for Victoria, Canada to host the 1994 Games. He briefed me on the background and requirements for a successful bid.
Upon my return to Malaysia, I briefed then OCM president Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah and other office bearers on what had to be done to win the bid. After getting government approval, an official letter was submitted to the CGF, detailing OCM’s desire to bid for the Games.
Malaysia won the bid due to several factors. The first was the proposal to include team sports in which many Commonwealth nations are of world standard. These sports included cricket, hockey, netball and rugby 7s.
Malaysia also proposed the inclusion of squash, another popular sport among Commonwealth countries. The idea to include team sports was first proposed by Stothart and his partner Jennifer Morford. Today, except for cricket, the other sports are permanent fixtures in the Commonwealth Games programme.
To me, the inclusion of team sports into the 1998 edition was Malaysia’s most important contribution to the CGF and the Games.
Most of the Commonwealth countries had little, if any, idea of Malaysia. Hence, when Wisma OCM was completed in September 1991, OCM invited one representative from each Commonwealth nation for the official opening on Dec 10 that year. Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Azlan Shah had graced the event.
The delegates, whose trip to Malaysia was fully sponsored, were also taken to sports facilities in Kuala Lumpur to convince them the city was capable of organising the Games. The 100-odd delegates were impressed with our hospitality and what our modern city had to offer.
The third factor was the offer of 1,000 sponsored air tickets to be shared by the athletes and officials of the 69 Commonwealth countries (excluding Malaysia). The CGF has an existing air ticket subsidy system. What OCM offered was in addition to this.
There were the usual visits to all the Commonwealth countries by members of the bid committee. In this area, the late Tan Sri Alex Lee and his son, Antony Lee, did plenty of hard work, travelling from country to country to promote Malaysia.
They won over many countries with their friendliness and sincerity and contributed very much to the success of the bid.
Credit must also go to Stothart and Morford. The arrangement was that they be paid only their expenses in working with the bid committee. If Malaysia won the bid, they would have the rights to the sponsorship and marketing programme of the Games, the proceeds of which would be shared with Sukom ’98.
The final important thing Stothart, Morford and I did was the drafting, finalising, printing and distribution of the bid documents to all the Commonwealth countries.
I remember rushing the printers and getting the courier service to send the bid documents before the deadline of late December 1991, about two weeks after Wisma OCM was declared open.
I was not in Barcelona when Malaysia won the bid.
Subsequently, there were plenty of politicking and campaigning from certain quarters trying to take over Hamzah’s role in OCM, being appointed to the organising committee or to hold a top post within the organsing committee.
During the bid, I was pledged a senior post in the committee should Malaysia become host.
On Nov 28, 1992, I was elected OCM’s honorary secretary.
To some people, being the honorary secretary of OCM disqualified me from holding a post in Sukom ’98. In any case, it did not matter because I was never really interested in any such post.
My involvement in Sukom ’98 was minimal, although I was a member of the sports committee under Tunku Imran Tuanku Ja’afar.
It is normal for members of the bid committee not to be part of the organising committee. This, I suppose, allows the organising committee to make changes to what was originally submitted.
In the case of Sukom ’98, many changes were made and the final product was of much higher standard and more expensive than in the original submission.
On Sept 11, 1997, a year before the official opening of the XVI Commonwealth Games, OCM organised the CGF general assembly at Mines.
I remember vividly the haze that covered Kuala Lumpur during the second week of September 1997. OCM had many problems ferrying the delegates from Subang International Airport to Mines due to lack of transport and the haze.
Fortunately, everything ended well and the assembly proceeded without problems.
Another matter I wish to highlight was my personal invitation to decorated national swimmer Nurul Huda Abdullah to attend Sukom ’98.
Some people may not be aware that due to her poor results at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, Nurul Huda was treated rather unfairly by the media and some senior sports officials. As a result, she decided to retire from swimming and was never heard again until I brought her back to Malaysia to attend the Games.
I sponsored her return air fares from Brisbane, while her stay at the Grand Olympic Hotel was sponsored by the hotel. Nurul Huda was later on invited by the National Sports Council to attend the 2001 SEA Games.
After attending the two Games, Nurul Huda decided to return to Malaysia for good.