Beyond Malaysia’s world-class women divers lie deep concerns about grassroots athletes

Datuk Pandelela Rinong Pamg, Datuk Leong Mun Yee, and Nur Dhabitah Sabri. These world-class women divers, who are Olympians, are household names in Malaysia.

While Leong had recently retired from the sport, Pandelela and Nur Dhabitah continue to lead the national contingent in major sporting events. At the Hanoi SEA Games in May, the duo helped Malaysia win all eight gold medals offered in diving.

The brilliance of the diving team has earned it a special spot in the government’s training programme. Dubbed a core sport, diving joins the ranks of archery, badminton and cycling in receiving much attention and allocation ahead of major sporting events like the Asian Games, and the Olympics.

Yet, states are struggling to field divers, especially in the women’s event, for the upcoming Malaysia Games (Sukma)

The Sukma, scheduled to begin on Malaysia Day (Sept 16), will be held in various locations in the Klang Valley. It is organised by the National Sports Council (NSC).

It is learnt that there is also a lack of participation in the women’s gymnastics events.

This led to the committee overseeing Sukma reducing the number of participants to six states per event, compared to eight, previously. The registration deadline was extended, and states now have until June 30 to list their athletes.

The states had earlier said that they had opted out of certain diving events due to the lack of talents, and the fact that their “athletes are not good enough”.

Claiming to not want to waste resources (money for transportation, insurance, attire), the states only registered their athletes for some diving events.

Twentytwo13 was informed that Youth and Sports Minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu, at a meeting recently, was left unimpressed with the list of divers, and the excuses given by the states.

The reality

States face numerous issues in sports like diving and gymnastics, especially in getting more girls to be a part of such sports.

Some states are ill-equipped. While they have state-of-the-art pools, they don’t have a dry gymnasium. A dry gymnasium is important, especially for young divers, to practise their moves.

In some areas, especially big states like Pahang and Sarawak, the facilities are too far away for the young athletes. As such, they are denied the opportunity of being exposed to such sports at a young age.

Other states lament that the lack of participation is due to the lack of parental support. Sports officials from Kelantan and Terengganu frown upon girls participating in diving and gymnastics, mainly because of the attire. This, despite some of the finest women divers and gymnasts in the country, are Muslims.

Malaysia Games: Quantity or quality?

One of the many challenges faced by the NSC is finding the right balance between encouraging states to send more athletes, and ensuring the quality of Sukma.

Discussions are ongoing, with some believing that it is time to lower the standards of Sukma to attract a larger pool of participants. They argue that if the current standards remain, some events will continue to be participated by only a handful of athletes.

However, the fear is that lowering standards could hurt the performance of the athletes in the long run.

The other suggestion was that states register athletes for all events involving core sports.

These ideas, however, will need to be deliberated extensively, for states will continue to argue that they lack talent.

Does “unity”, and “feel-good factor” have a price tag?

Funding is a massive problem for sports associations, and state sports councils in Malaysia.

Sports is mainly government-funded, as the sports industry, despite having contributed RM18.8 billion in 2017, is still in its infancy.

National sports associations, except for a handful, are still heavily reliant on government funding. Most football clubs participating in the domestic league still rely on allocations from the respective state governments.

The private sector has generally shied away, due to the lack of consistent, visible results. The current sluggish economic climate, that has seen prices of goods and services rise, is not helping, either.

Sports is often said to promote “unity”, and provide citizens with the “feel-good” factor, but these elements are not tangible, and cannot be measured in ringgit and sen. As such, money invested would be benchmarked against the number of medals earned during multi-sporting events.

Compared to other ministries, the Youth and Sports Ministry does not enjoy a large allocation. NSC’s funding from Berjaya Sports Toto had been significantly reduced to RM28.7 million in 2020, and RM30.1 million last year, compared to the RM40-RM50 million they used to receive annually.

This was mainly due to the various lockdowns imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw lottery outlets forced to shutter, and the number of special draws, slashed.

The same is seen at the state level, as allocation for sports is often seen as the lowest priority. As a result, state sports councils would hesitate to send a large contingent for sporting events, and this includes the Malaysia Games.

‘Money in sports is never enough’

A ranking government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the country had a long way to go before it could truly be a sporting nation.

“For starters, we have to realise that no one country is good in every sport. In short, we have to select and invest in the sports we are good at,” said the official.

“But in Malaysia, politicians use sports as a vehicle to gain popularity, and as such, populist decisions are usually made. This includes the Santa Claus mentality, where everyone gets funding.”

He added money in sports is never enough.

“And the government cannot be expected to fund it all. Malaysia needs a strong sports industry. Just look at developed nations like the United States and the United Kingdom. The sports bodies and their athletes don’t rely 100 per cent on government funding.

“Everyone has got a role to play. The government can provide more tax incentives or exemptions to companies willing to invest in sports. State sports councils must look at the bigger picture and not just think of coming out tops at Sukma.

“State governments should build smaller, yet functional facilities in more places, instead of mega structures that are isolated and do not serve the purpose. Maintenance is also key to ensuring that people continue to use them.”

He stressed parents, teachers and society had a huge role to play by encouraging children, including girls, to participate in sports.

“Look at sports as an investment. Even if the child doesn’t make the cut, they have instilled a healthy lifestyle in their kids.

“Sports involves the whole ecosystem. If our leaders have the political will and society is willing to play ball, Malaysia can be a sporting powerhouse and Malaysians can derive income from sports.”

Main image: Pandelela Rinong / Facebook

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