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PROGRAMME: National Sports Council must go beyond the cities in search of talents
AS London 2012 draws its final curtains tonight, and all eyes set on Rio in 2016, perhaps it is timely for us to take stock of what we need to do next so that Rio and beyond proves to be more successful outings for us.
Relatively speaking, we did quite well in London, with Sarawak lass Pandelela Rinong diving her way to a historic bronze in the women's 10m platform dive, bringing the total medal tally to one silver and one bronze.
There had been other high and low points for Malaysians with Datuk Lee Chong Wei, by far our most successful Olympian, narrowly missing out on the elusive gold medal after he succumbed to China's Lin Dan in the tense men's singles badminton final.
Pandelela, by now a household name across Malaysia, is also the first ever Malaysian woman to officially win an Olympic medal. Her bronze also lifts Malaysia sharply up in the medal rankings, putting us on par with neighbours Indonesia and Thailand and equalling our record tally from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
By the close of London 2012, the United States and China would have topped the medal tally, garnering about 40 gold medals each. So just how do some countries come to dominate events like the Olympics? What should Malaysia do in order to win more Olympic medals?
The foolish remarks of one DAP assemblyman aside, it is not just about being lucky in winning. It is about total devotion and deep commitment by our athletes and having the right development programme and the necessary investments.
Take the case of host country Great Britain. As of yesterday, Great Britain finished in third place with a whopping 25 gold medals. This is a sharp contrast from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when it won just one gold medal and a total of 15 medals, its worst medal haul since 1952.
It fact, the country finished in 36th position, below Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan. To the Britons, that was a turning point for British sports, prompting the government to invest in elite sports programmes. London 2012 shows the investment, which has exceeded hundreds of millions of pounds, is yielding results.
The fact that Malaysia has improved from the 2008 Beijing Olympics showed that we are doing something right. Still, we have a long way to go.
In the case of Pandelela, what made her achievement more significant is that diving is not a glamour sport and Malaysia is not even a major name in the diving sporting world.
"This is a massive achievement for Malaysian diving and I am so proud of becoming the first Malaysian from outside badminton to win a medal at the Olympics for Malaysia. I can't believe it," the 19-year-old Pandelela, who has humble beginnings, said after the event. The success of Pandelela and the admirable efforts of many other Olympians such as diver Bryan Nickson Lomas, shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, archer Khairul Anuar Mohd and cyclist Azizulhasni Awang were not by chance.
What happened in London was not an overnight achievement. Much of that was credited to the National Sports Council's (NSC) Jaya '98 programme.
For example, weightlifting was facing a natural death before the sport was included in the programme in 1993. It then produced champions like Hidayat Hamidon and Matin Gunta.
NSC's longest-serving director-general Datuk Wira Mazlan Ahmad was seen as the thinker behind the Jaya '98 programme that accelerated Malaysia's medal-winning performance in multi-sports festivals.
Pandelela is a product of that programme, which aimed at focusing our resources on multiple medal sports such as diving, shooting, archery, cycling (including keirin).
These sports were shortlisted because they suit Malaysians well in terms of physique and size, and that they offer multiple medals.
They are unlike team events such as hockey or football, which offer only one gold medal prospect but involve huge costs in terms of preparations and the large number of players, substitutes and officials.
We are already world champions in squash. We are now ranked third in diving and sixth place in keirin. Perhaps the time has come for us to seriously consider excelling in such sports.
According to one former sports journalist, we have to move away from the debate of where Malaysian football is heading. There is life outside football. Diving may not be as glamorous as athletics but it put Malaysia on the medal tally list. This is one sport where our elusive gold lies.
The Bukit Jalil sports school, where Pandelela and Bryan studied, also played a major role in turning out our future Olympians.
Pandelela's win also shows the way for rural children that with grooming and expert guidance, we can do it. The NSC should continue to go beyond the cities in search of talent. You don't get champions in towns.
The government has committed millions of ringgit to elite training and facilities for future Olympians.
As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has said, it is time for the private sector to do more.