More needs to be done to get Malaysians to warm up to winter sports

As Malaysia ended its Winter Olympics campaign prematurely on Wednesday, the fate of aspiring athletes wanting to make the country proud, remains unknown.

Unlike the Summer Games which is widely accepted by Malaysians, the Winter edition saw an ice-cold reception from Malaysian fans who could not seem to connect with the sports contested, and the athletes.

National Alpine skiers Jeffrey Webb and Aruwin Salehhuddin were the only two Malaysian representatives in China. The two are based abroad.

Webb fell at the beginning of the Run 1 competition, which prevented him from continuing in the event. Aruwin ended her challenge in the women’s giant slalom event by being in the top 40 on Feb 7. In her second event two days later, the 17-year-old Colorado-based skier failed to finish the women’s slalom after falling on Run 1.

In fact, such a sense of “disconnect” is not exclusive to Malaysia alone. Citizens of other tropical nations also can’t seem to relate to the Winter Games and their athletes’ participation in Beijing.

So, where does this leave the small number of Malaysian athletes involved in winter sports?

Irene Cheow believes it all boils down to visibility. She understands the struggles of athletes involved in winter sports firsthand.

Cheow is mother to Malaysian Winter Olympian Julian Yee, and once served as president of the now defunct Malaysia Ice Skating Federation.

Yee, a figure skater, and Webb inked their names in the history books as being the first Malaysians to compete in the Winter Games in South Korea, four years ago.

“There’s very little exposure given to winter sports in Malaysia. Admittedly, figure skating is more entertaining … There’s music and action, and even if you don’t understand it (the rules), one can still appreciate it,” said Cheow.

“But the same cannot be said for something like skiing. It looks dangerous, fast, with sharp corners, but it’s not a race like a 100m race. So those who don’t understand it, would not appreciate it.”

While there are several skating rinks nationwide, the only thing that comes close to real skiing is First Traxx – Malaysia’s first indoor ski and snowboarding training facility based in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

“We embarked on curling a few years ago, tried very hard to promote it, but it didn’t take off. We will, nevertheless, try again.

Cheow is not associated with any formal sporting organisation, but she and several like-minded winter sports enthusiasts are eager to show what winter sports is all about.

“This Olympics is better than the one Julian was in. The Olympic Council of Malaysia gave it more exposure on their social media accounts. I see baby steps.”

Yee, who was studying at a university in Toronto, graduated in Human Resources last September and relocated to Vancouver after securing a job there last month. He no longer has time to train but coaches on a part time basis.

Cheow agreed that local fans were somewhat “detached” from the athletes.

“Julian was homegrown. Jeffery and Aruwin are based abroad. There’s no way they are able to thrive and even compete in the Olympics if they were here (in Malaysia).

Cheow said it was “very difficult” to build athletes in Malaysia.

“The coaches are inexperienced, and we don’t have enough facilities. At this moment, there are Malaysians based abroad, or individuals born to Malaysian parents who want to represent Malaysia. It’s easier for them to represent Malaysia instead of Team USA or Canada.

“If Malaysia wants to be serious about participating in the Winter Olympics, we must embrace these individuals first. There won’t be any medals for the time being, but let’s be a part of the Games, let’s get the Jalur Gemilang flying.

“We also need to bring visibility to the sport. We need the support from the mass media, too.”

Cheow was informed that a “snow wonderland” would be built at the Pavilion in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

“Maybe it won’t be as big as the indoor skiing hub in Dubai, but this is a good start. This will bring Malaysians a little closer to winter sports. If we have more people showing interest, and participating in such sports, it’s a win for us.

“I’ve been receiving plenty of requests lately regarding curling. I believe this is a sport we can develop as it can also be played on the floor, and not just on ice. It can be played in school halls, and even by those in wheelchairs.

“We hope this will be the beginning of more interest in winter sports, to ensure that our participation in future editions of the Winter Olympics will be appreciated by many,” she added.