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HEROES NEEDED: After Chong Wei, does Malaysia have a next line of athletes who can truly make an impact in the Olympics?
THE look of utter devastation on Datuk Lee Chong Wei's face following his defeat to China's Lin Dan made many want to reach out and give him a tight hug last Sunday.
All Malaysians, except perhaps Kota Alam Shah assemblyman M. Manoharan, reached out in various other ways, however, offering words of support and comfort.
Social media networks were flooded with posts about "DLCW". According to Forbes, there were 16,847 tweets per minute mentioning the outcome of the Sunday Olympic gold medal match.
Chong Wei garnered nearly 500,000 mentions that day, compared with Lin Dan's 238,000 mentions. He also had close to 50,000 new followers on Twitter 24 hours after his match. The hashtag #ThankYouLeeChongWei reached No. 3 in Twitter's Worldwide Trends list after the match ended.
It was the same on Facebook. A poster by Nando's Malaysia which stated "Dato', you brought 28 million Malaysians together. That's gold," and "We are CLUCKING PROUD of you" went viral.
It was a message all Malaysians could relate to. Only sports can bring everyone -- whether tall, short, thin, horizontally challenged, rich, poor, a Barisan Nasional or opposition supporter, Malay, Indian, Chinese, and "dan lain-lain" -- together.
Indeed, sport is a unifier like no other. Every time we won the Thomas Cup right up to 1992, Malay-sians slapped each other on the backs, and cheered as one nation.
Nobody bothered about the racial background of the players, or thought twice about hugging the sweaty person next to them at the stadium or mamak stall. What else can do that?
It's now been four days after the match. Malaysians continue to wax lyrical about their Olympic hero. Conversations around office vending machines, in kopitiams and the social media continue to revolve around how well Chong Wei did despite the odds stacked against him. What a sweet victory it was, even in the absence of a gold medal and public holiday.
But going by the vociferous support Malaysians give sport heroes and events, it's ironic that they usually shove it aside in their own lives. It's simply not a priority, especially in what is supposed to be the incubators of sporting excellence -- schools.
As such, Malaysia does not really have a next line of athletes who can truly make an impact in the Olympic Games.
Badminton has always been the country's best bet for a gold medal. But there is no other player of Chong Wei's pedigree in sight.
Olympic Council of Malaysia president Tunku Imran Tuanku Ja'afar recently acknowledged: "Badminton is depleted... in badminton, men's doubles -- which was once our strong point -- has really dropped in rankings. In other sports, we don't see the next line of athletes really coming up."
Steps have been made to encourage sports in schools via the One Student, One Sport policy, but sporting achievement remains a low priority in many schools.
Sports Days now are generally non-events. No longer are they one of the most anticipated highlights in a school calendar. Those days, Sports Days were grand events attended in full force by parents. Now, all this has been replaced by a single-minded focus on academic achievement.
But should schools be the driving force behind sporting excellence in the first place? Shouldn't the onus be on parents?
To come up with exemplary sportsmen, tiger mums and dads are needed.
If we look at every single champion the country has ever produced, parental influence looms large. Squash champion Datuk Nicol David and the Sidek brothers are prime examples. They became world champions in spite of the school system.
Chong Wei's father, Lee Ah Chai, too, played a crucial role in his son's steady rise as a world-class champ. Ah Chai took his son for training in Kampung Berapit, Penang under Teh Peng Huat in the early days. There were times they returned home in Bukit Mertajam only around 2am due to the long distance. But they surmounted the difficulties and obstacles.
Parental influence is also instrumental in martial arts, such as taekwondo and karate where our athletes get to the Olympics because their parents put them into academies. Gymnastics is also not driven by schools, but clubs or state training centres.
That's the way to go to achieve sporting excellence. Only committed -- or to put it bluntly, obsessive parents -- can produce the champions the country so badly needs.
Question is -- how many parents have it in them to run that distance?