Lee Zii Jia not playing at Commonwealth Games ignites debate over national or ‘self’ glory

It has been described as an unprecedented move, one that left sports officials in Malaysia stumped.

Never – at least where Malaysian badminton is concerned – has an athlete declined to participate in a multi-sports event. But it happened when the nation’s top shuttler, and world No. 5, Lee Zii Jia, decided to opt out of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, the United Kingdom.

Lee revealed his decision yesterday.

He said: “I have decided not to play in the Commonwealth Games, and it is a tough decision, which I made after speaking to my team.”

“I have been playing non-stop and need to take care of my body condition. I want to be in my best condition for the World Championships.”

The BA of Malaysia (BAM) had listed him as one of the 10 players who would see action in the Commonwealth Games scheduled for July 28-Aug 8. In fact, BAM had earmarked two gold medals from the outing, with Lee helping out in the men’s singles and team events.

The other sports the Malaysian contingent is banking on to contribute to the seven gold-medal target are gymnastics, field bowling, weightlifting, squash, and powerlifting (para sports).

The world meet takes place in Tokyo, Japan, two weeks after the Birmingham affair.

Lee is no longer attached to the BAM, following his decision in January to go independent. The out-of-court drama even caught the attention of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who stepped in to play cupid and pretty much “blessed” Lee’s departure from the national body.

As such, BAM, and even the Olympic Council of Malaysia, cannot force Lee to play for the Malaysian contingent.

While many had celebrated the push for more athletes to move away from the comfort of national associations, such a decision also exposes the other side of going independent, in which athletes will pick and choose tournaments to realise their “personal” interests, instead of the nation’s.

The Commonwealth Games take place once every four years and have both individual, and team events. Nations are represented by their respective contingents, and the athletes’ victories contribute to the overall medal tally. In short, such multi-sports events are a big deal for sports and government officials.

Others argue that the World Championships, held annually, is the pinnacle of the badminton world, and Malaysia has never won the crown. Lee is poised to be among the favourites to make it to the top. Even world No. 1, Viktor Axelsen, described Lee as his “toughest rival in recent times.”

However, athletes compete in their respective events in the world meet, and medals won do not contribute to the overall medal tally.

Managing expectations is also key, as the Youth and Sports Ministry and its agencies, namely the National Sports Council, had come under fire for the poor medal haul at the recent SEA Games in Hanoi. The same will happen if the national contingent returns from Birmingham with a “poor haul”.

A careful and thorough assessment of the competition was carried out – including comparing the performance of the other participants – before the seven-gold medal target was set.

Lee’s latest move will be watched closely. Those upset by his decision will be quick to criticise him if he fails to impress at the world meet. However, if Lee clinches the world championship, many will line up and take credit for the victory.

In January, Lee’s departure from the national body served as a lesson for sports officials to look into the clauses of their contracts with the players. The winner of the ‘play for the national body vs play independently’ battle, was obvious.

Lee’s latest decision also serves as an eye-opener. The powers-that-be will now look at independent athletes from developed nations to see how to navigate this issue.

These are indeed exciting times for observers and fans, for the winner of the ‘national glory vs personal glory’ battle will go on to dictate the future of Malaysian sports.

One thing is for sure, athletes – independent or playing under the banner of an association – must ensure that the nation’s interests always come first.

The Jalur Gemilang on their outfit serves as the perfect reminder.