Will MFL CEO Stuart Ramalingam head Malaysia’s Paris Gold campaign?

The Paris Gold programme, established to produce Malaysia’s first-ever gold medal at next year’s Olympics, could possibly be run by a commercial expert and long-time football administrator – Stuart Michael Ramalingam.

It is learnt that Stuart, the Malaysia Football League (MFL) chief executive officer, has been earmarked by the Youth and Sports Ministry to lead Malaysia’s high-performance quest to win the elusive gold.

Stuart is a familiar face in the local football industry, having been appointed as Malaysia Super League chief executive officer in 2010. Two years later, he joined the Asian Football Confederation, and then, a leading sports marketing agency.

He served as the FA of Malaysia’s general secretary from 2018 to 2021 before being made the CEO of MFL. He also sits on the National Sports Council’s (NSC) management board.

There are those who believe Stuart, given his vast knowledge in football, branding, and commercialisation, is the right fit for the role.

Others, however, wonder if the ambitious administrator has the necessary experience to lead a national high-performance project featuring sports such as aquatics, badminton, cycling, and diving. This could very well be his first attempt at helming a results-oriented training programme.

For the record, the Malaysian football team qualified for the Summer Games on two occasions – 1972 and 1980 – and continues to struggle at the Southeast Asian level.

Stuart’s role within MFL remains a question mark, should he take up the offer.

Stuart, when contacted, declined comment.

On the plus side, several former national athletes are expected to be a part of the campaign. Former No. 1 shuttler Datuk Lee Chong Wei, ex-squash star Datuk Nicol David, and former hockey international Datuk Minarwan Nawawi, are among the names bandied about to be part of the committee.

Stuart’s possible appointment, however, has sparked a debate about the role of the NSC – an agency under the Youth and Sports Ministry.

Government funding for such programmes is channelled to the NSC, via the ministry, before they are given out to the various sports bodies, in line with the NSC Act 1971.

NSC has traditionally been at the forefront of these programmes. The Jaya ‘98 programme – launched in 1993 ahead of the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and led by former NSC director-general Datuk Mazlan Ahmad – has been hailed as the most successful programme to date.

Under this programme, Mazlan and his officers, including the current director-general Datuk Ahmad Shapawi Ismail, offered strategic solutions to produce medal winners from sports other than badminton.

With NSC leading the way, a weightlifting training centre was set up in Kuala Rompin in Pahang. A naturalised athlete from Indonesia, Hidayat Hamidon, was enlisted.

NSC then, had also worked closely with the Home Ministry to create a large pool of shooters from the uniformed units, thus reducing the over-reliance on businessmen shooting skeet and trap. The result – Nurul Huda Baharin won the 10m air rifle women’s event in the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

Following the success of Jaya ‘98, NSC rolled out various elite programmes to churn out medals for all multi-sports competitions.

High-performance programmes were introduced under a variety of names – Gemilang 2001 ahead of the SEA Games Kuala Lumpur, followed by the Asia-Comm project for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, and the Doha Asian Games in 2006.

A precedent was somewhat set after Australian Damien Kelly was tasked to head Asia-Comm – the first foreign manager assigned to a role customarily filled by local administrators.

NSC then took charge of the following programmes – the Road to London 2021 and Road to Rio 2016, as well as Kita Juara 2017.

The National Sports Institute came into the picture when the Podium Programme was launched in 2015. Tim Newenham was then hired to head the project.

Following the nation’s poor outing in the 2018 Commonwealth, and Asian Games, Newenham had in 2018 told Twentytwo13 that resigning was “the right and honourable thing to do”.

Another Englishman, Keith Power, was entrusted to ensure a process was in place. Both Newenham and Power are no longer in Malaysia.

While the stakeholders had painted a pretty picture of these programmes, the reality is anything but, and Malaysia’s wait for the Olympics gold continues.

Only five Southeast Asian nations – Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines – have seen their athletes stand at the top of the podium in the Summer Games.

If the NSC’s competency (or lack thereof) in running such programmes is the issue, then the Council should rightfully fix it.

If there is a candidate within the system – regardless of seniority – capable of being the director-general, then he or she should be appointed. There’s always the option of giving the job to someone outside the system, with a clearly-defined key performance indicator, to ensure a degree of success.

OCM, meanwhile, is eager to ditch its ‘glorified tour agent’ label and wants to do more than just submit accreditation forms for the athletes ahead of major multi-sports Games.

For that to happen, OCM will have to beef up its staff strength and subject itself to audits by the government.

OCM may very well play a more aggressive role, judging by some of the issues aired by officials from various national sports associations during a “special session” with Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh at the Kristal Ballroom of the Petaling Jaya Hilton in Selangor, yesterday evening.

Representatives from national sports associations gather after their closed-door session at Petaling Jaya Hilton yesterday.

After all, OCM president Tan Sri Norza Zakaria is chair of the Paris Gold project, for which Stuart – or whoever is appointed – will be answerable to.

But will this change secure gold at Paris 2024? Will those responsible be prepared to take the fall if Malaysia once again fails in its quest?

Are they be willing to be put on the firing line and be the sacrificial lambs if things go pear-shaped?

Time will tell.