What has Malaysia learnt from Asian Games outing, if anything?

It followed the script right to the tee. As the Malaysian contingent ended its Asian Games campaign with six gold, eight silver, and 18 bronze medals, stakeholders were quick to quote figures that sort of painted a rosy picture for the Southeast Asian nation.

It gave the impression that all was well, and that Malaysians should be proud of the contingent, sitting at the 14th spot in the overall medal tally, out of the 45 nations that competed.

Some had even tried to ‘stretch’ it a bit, by quoting statistics that said that Malaysia was the contingent with the most impressive gold medal ratio to the number of athletes (2:07) compared to Indonesia and Thailand. If that is the barometer for success, Malaysia should have just sent Aira Azman, Aifa Azman, Rachel Arnold S. Sivasangari and Ng Eain Yow – who would return with not only the most impressive gold medal ratio to the number of athletes, but who would have also scored 100 per cent in winning gold medals.

The need to quote such a figure was even ridiculed by those within the contingent. But no one spoke openly, for fear of offending those who had vouched for the data.

However, those who have been in the business long enough – including sports officials representing agencies within the Youth and Sports Ministry and national sports associations – know that the Hangzhou outing was nothing to shout about. While certainly not dismissing the good work done by those who stood on the podium, the hard truth is that Malaysian sports remains stagnated.

The various ‘elite’ programmes carried out over the decades had failed to deliver on the intended outcome – to create a larger pool of world-class talents, en route to picking up that elusive Olympic gold medal.

For starters, four of the six gold medals won by the athletes (three from squash and one from karate) will not be contested in the Summer Games next year. There seems to be some hope as squash may be included in the 2028 Olympics, as the selection of new sports for the Los Angeles Games will be ratified in the International Olympic Committee Session on Oct 16.

As for the remaining two gold medals, sailor Nur Shazrin Latif will have a long shot at glory at the Paris Games, while Qabil Ambak Mahamad Fathil is set to let go of the reins for good. Also, the reliable horse of the equestrian star will not be able to match those that will feature in Paris.

Malaysia’s best achievement was winning nine gold medals, and a total of 41 medals, in the 2010 edition of the Asian Games. At the 2018 edition, Malaysia won seven gold medals.

While the celebrations continued in Malaysia, the Sports Authority of Thailand said it was upset that its athletes had failed to meet the minimum target of 15 gold medals at the regional Games. This, despite Thailand winning 12 gold medals in Hangzhou, one more than their 11 gold medal achievement at the 2018 Games.

Arguably, there are certain sports that were included or axed in certain editions. But the list is known in advance, giving participating nations adequate time to prepare.

The fixation on wanting to do well at a multisport event isn’t just about creating history – for some, it’s purely for bragging rights. To be in office when Malaysia finally achieves glory on the biggest stage on earth is something money just cannot buy. Yet, the decision-makers come and go, with little to show for.

The decision-makers also need to stop fooling themselves and those around them with the feel-good narratives. And worse still, do not use the athletes as an excuse to justify the celebrations. Malaysians will continue to celebrate our medallists, including the likes of runners Azeem Fahmi and Shereen Samson Vallabouy. They have made the nation proud and injected a sense of excitement into sports.

But let’s not kid ourselves, as the personal bests of Azeem and Shereen are nowhere near those who will blaze the tracks at the Olympics. We need to be real.

The Youth and Sports Ministry claims that the mechanisms for setting the overall medal target were proposed by the Nippon Sport Science University of Japan. Not having specific gold medal targets was said to “ease the pressure off the athletes”. Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh added, “If it (not setting overall medal target) is good, we will continue with it”.

Ironically, Japan Olympic Committee executive board member Yasuhiro Yamashita, in August 2018, announced Japan’s gold medal target of 30 for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Yasuhiro, however, backed from the medal target, citing the pandemic. Japan went on to win 27 gold medals and ended third in the medal tally, after USA and China.

What has Malaysia truly learnt from this Asian Games outing, and from the other editions? Will the key takeaways be made public? Or will the culture of sugar-coating things for fear of offending certain quarters be maintained or encouraged?

Malaysia does not need another elite sports programme. What the stakeholders need to do is to make the necessary adjustments and improvements to the on-going Podium Programme. It can start by taking into account the report of the Podium Programme Enhancement Committee, which was handed to the then Youth and Sports minister, Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican, in September 2020.

It needs to be clear of its objectives and targets. These objectives and targets must be made public. The national sports associations, as the guardians of their respective sports, must be held accountable. They should face, in fact, face the firing squad, not the ministry.

Also, the ministry can start by disclosing the audited accounts of the 2017 SEA Games and its trip to Japan earlier this year. It can’t scream transparency according to its whims and fancies, or when it suits their agenda.

If certain sports, like hockey and badminton, had failed to achieve the desired results, the powers-that-be should go on record to say so. They should not be cowed by the reaction that will most certain come, on social media. More importantly, the guardians of the sport need to quickly learn how other nations have progressed in the respective sports, and adopt the best practices. Just look at how India has progressed in badminton.

Radical changes ahead of the next two Olympic cycles aside, Malaysia needs to start promoting sports as a lifestyle. The buy-in from the masses can further strengthen any investment in sports and its ancillary industries and naturally create a larger talent pool.

The Asian Games is done and dusted. Hopefully, the same script – that’s best kept for a bedtime story – will not be repeated after the Paris Olympics.

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