Being recognised as Olympian takes more than just showing up at ultimate sporting event

What makes an Olympian?

It is a question that has vexed many an athlete who has been to the Olympic Games but denied the recognition they so desperately seek.

The years of sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears would all come to nought if you do not start. Merely showing up at the showpiece event, or even coming on as a substitute, is not enough to be bestowed the ultimate recognition of being an Olympian.

In Malaysia, some 20-odd athletes have been to the Olympic Games without actually playing in one, mainly hockey and football players who did not get off the bench.

For the likes of tennis player Khoo Hooi Hye and footballer Yeap Cheng Wen, who travelled to the 1924 and 1948 Olympics respectively without setting foot on the field of play, their case to be considered as Olympians is further complicated by the fact that they turned out for China, rather than the place of their birth, Malaya, which did not have a national Olympic committee then.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) considers such athletes as reserves, or alternates, and thus, does not recognise them as Olympians. The same goes for athletes competing in demonstration sports.

These athletes would not then receive the “OLY” initials tagged to their names, bestowed by the World Olympians Association to “athletes who have competed at the Summer or Winter Olympics as determined by the IOC start list database.”

The Malaysian Olympians Association (MOA) is guided in this matter by the IOC and the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM), which currently recognises 338 Malaysian athletes as Olympians, before the addition of another 13 who will make their Olympic debut in Tokyo this year.

MOA president Noraseela Khalid said being recognised as an Olympian is the highest honour for an athlete, but the process for recognition can be a tricky one.

“Firstly, the athlete must be registered and accredited for the Olympic Games, and then, he or she must take to the field of play in active participation to be considered an Olympian,” said Noraseela, the national women’s 400m hurdles record holder, who ran at the 2012 London Olympics.

Several prominent athletes have been denied recognition of being an Olympian. Former hockey player, Tan Sri P. Alagendra, was made to wait decades before being officially recognised as one.

Alagendra was part of the Malayan hockey team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but only saw action in the classification matches. The classification matches, which were held after the group stage, were excluded from the official Olympic Games report.

This meant Alagendra was not listed officially as an Olympic participant, though this was finally rectified in 2019, thanks to the efforts of MOA and OCM.

For Khoo and Yeap, however, official recognition as Olympians is fraught with difficulty.

“They did not actually play, and they were also registered by another country, but it is important to highlight the fact that they were the first Malayan-born athletes to go to an Olympic Games,” said Noraseela.

Also missing out on official recognition as Olympians are two triple jumpers from Sabah – the late Datuk Gabuh Piging and Datuk Sium Diau – who competed in Melbourne in 1956 as part of the North Borneo delegation.

Others denied the Olympian honour included the 1972 Munich Olympics footballers Ali Bakar, Harun Jusoh and Lim Fung Kee. In goalkeeper Lim’s case, he came on as a 27th-minute substitute for Wong Kam Fook in Malaysia’s final group game against Morocco.

The hockey players affected included Anwarul Haque, Takbir Ahmad, Lim Fung Chong, Kartar Singh, S. Kanagalingam and Yusop Maidin, aside from reserve relay runners Mohamed Ariffin and S. Sivaraman, and reserve cyclists Datuk Ng Joo Ngan and Edrus Yunos.