Continuing Penang’s Supply of World Sport Champions

By Avineshwaran Taharumalengam

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WHEN PLAYING FOOTBALL on the streets as a young lad, I always attempted to achieve Ronaldinho’s elastico or Ronaldo’s shimmy. Every kid in my neighbourhood was the same; they wanted to emulate their favourite football hero too.

It is no less different for fans of other sports. For example, in badminton, many enthusiasts want to be Chinese legend, Lin Dan, or Penangite and local legend, Lee Chong Wei. They mimic their stance and the way they move in the court – from the cross-court smash and slice smash to the “crouching tiger” and trick shots. Excitement over a badminton game reaches fever pitch when Malaysia is in the finals, and Malaysians of all creeds would cheer on their team at their favourite mamak haunts.

Then we have the ever-gracious Nicol David, who elevated the sport of squash to new heights. Thanks to her, we are now seeing many brilliant women taking up the sport. Ask any young upstart in the game, and the first name mentioned would be Nicol. These two Penangites have often united the nation. For the state, they are an excellent source of pride.

Now that these two icons have retired their racquets – at least, in the competitive field, it is only natural for Penang to desire another Nicol and Chong Wei to fill their spots.

Producing the next top athlete can be an arduous task that requires excellent talent identification, thorough development, elite management, competitive exposure, detailed analytics, sports science and most importantly, commitment on the part of the athlete concerned.

Understanding the Current Generation

Sports and school co-existed well in the past; we have heard tales of athletes training tirelessly before and after school. Some from pre-school until they are done with schooling – determined, focused and without wavering. Basically a sports movie in a nutshell.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in this day and age. The rationale for school kids interested in sports today is: either you focus on your grades or you just accept the fact that you will only succeed in sports. That is a dampener in many aspects, but some schools actually resort to such idiosyncratic extremes in developing an individual.

Then there is also the thriving eSports scene, which many children see as a form of independence - the industry can get very lucrative when one turns professional.

In such settings, you wonder if the current and future generations can emulate the successes of Nicol and Chong Wei. Many may fantasise about such prospects, but they need to realise that it also involves a lot of pressure. The culture of comparison and competition seems vastly ingrained in society, and this has worsened with the excessive use of social media.

Imagine with me: after the first victory of a budding sportsperson, the headline across the Malaysian mass media reads, "The Next Chong Wei" or "The Next Nicol David" – that, in itself, is pressure that may make them doubt their abilities.

Youngsters these days have their own niche and identity. Only when we comprehend that clearly, can we think of the next steps in producing the next great talent from Penang.

Data Analytics and Science

As much as we believe in “practice makes perfect”, in sports, understanding yourself and your dynamics is more important. What is the point of exerting blood, sweat and tears when it does not deliver results? Being smart is savvy these days in the world of sports.

Hence, data analytics and sports science play a crucial role in the development of an athlete. It helps give an individual or team an overview of their statistics, win-loss records, injury predictions, et cetera. A thorough analysis will enable a team to take relevant steps to improve their game.

Take athletics, for example. Even the start of the blocks during a 100m race is an art in itself. The perfect lift could lead to a win.

National sprinter, Mohd Azeem Fahmi, honed on available data – and see where he is now. Only 19, he is already the national record holder and the world believes he could be the first Southeast Asian to break the sub-10 seconds mark in the 100m.

Not only did he work on his starts, but he understands his anatomy well and made sure t put that to full use during races. And this boy from Perak continues to say that he is learning and getting better. He has not undergone rigorous training whatsoever. It has been about being smart and sensible with what he does; he knows it will take him places.

In the recent Malaysia Games (Sukma), Penang finished seventh in the medal standings with 30 gold medals. The state cannot, in truth, prime itself as a sporting state; it should know that innovative steps need to be taken to enhance its reputation. To achieve that, those involved need to understand the macrocosm of conditioning and strengths, and find what truly suits the athlete in question. To do that effectively, they need to marry sports training with analytics and science.

Even the likes of Nicol or Chong Wei, in the later years of their careers, would have relied on lots of analytical studies to maximise their longevity in their game. Imagine how much further they could have gone if they, during their younger days, had had access to the resources we have today.

Learning From Greats

Nicol once said, "When I was five years old, I was given the greatest opportunity in my life, and that was to play a sport – squash."

The opportunity - coupled with hard work and humility - changed her life forever. With a foundation of her own to inspire Malaysian girls to take up sports (see interview in Penang Monthly April 2021), Nicol’s successes make one of the sports’ greatest stories. Therefore, instead of seeing Nicol as a person to emulate, focus on her knowledge, resilience and inspiring stories.

Nicol David

For more than 20 years, she reigned supreme in world squash, and it must be lauded that she played on until age 36 – with gusto!

She was the world number one for a record-breaking 108 consecutive months, finally letting go of the ranking in September 2015 to Egyptian, Raneem El Weleily.

In an interview with Buro Malaysia, she emphasised the idea of improvement.

"What is really the secret or the key to my success is ‘improvement’. And I want to improve myself every day. Even when I was number one, I felt like I wasn't good enough and had to keep improving day in and day out; because there were so many areas that I had to work on, be it my squash techniques, physique, mental strength, I always had to work harder. Everyone was always changing – my opponents were changing their tactics and finding ways to beat me, and I was always on the receiving end, getting the pressure to perform and do well. I was, in some ways, obsessed with improving myself and wanted to get better every day and stay at my very best because if I did that, I would be ahead of the rest.”

She explained that it was the key to what made her consistent, and believes that it is something everyone can do.

“If they work on the small details, keep to their path on what they want to do to improve themselves and get better bit by bit, it will happen. Everything else becomes a little blur when you have a goal and set your priorities strongly in front of you."

As for Chong Wei, he relied on hard work to become one of the best in the game, though one wished Lin Dan was not always in his way. Nonetheless, his epics against several badminton top stars will never be forgotten, and we will all fondly remember Chong Wei as someone who united the nation through his matches.

The nation always waited with bated breath in every final match he was in. Towards the match point, there would be a standstill, and we only wished the best for that man. Many compare the current generation of shuttlers with him, but the great man himself is in no mood to do so.

"We are not here to compare the results and achievements of our generation with the current generation, but our role is to share our experience and inspire the players. I will go all the way to contribute to the future of badminton in the country," he said, when appointed as a member of the Academy Badminton Malaysia (ABM) Technical Advisory Panel.

"We want to share our experience as players. I have been with the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) for 19 years, I think I'm the longest with them, and I hope that what other players and I will share can help and inspire others."

Lee Chong Wei

Instilling Nationalism or Professionalism?

In any sport, it's common to see an athlete thumping a badge and doing everything with gusto.

Even singing the national anthem. Ask any Italian about it - chest out and belting it out with great pride gives them the extra kick, which could be why Italy won Euro 2020.

Then there is also Chong Wei, who famously said, "I'm a patriot at heart. The nation always comes first."

He once wished that a Malaysian could beat his record of Malaysian Open wins. He is more than a sportsman - some say he is a symbol of national pride and unity.

Sports and nationalism go hand in hand, but there comes a point where professionalism must be shouldered to move forward.

Some say sports is just a form of entertainment, while others would emphasise punters and television rights. Football is one example, and on our shores, the Malaysian Super League, which has Penang in the tournament, entertains fans week in and week out. Yes, the fans will feel pride, but the professional footballers in these teams see this as a daily chore laced with passion because, at the end of the day, it is the moolah that counts – it will be no surprise to see Penang players leaving their state for better money.

However, when sportsmen represent the nation, there is a priority shift. When they are on the field, court or range, these athletes focus solely on giving their best. They get inspired by the cheers from the fans. Chong Wei has publicly stated that it is his wish not to disappoint the hopes and prayers of millions which gives him an extra boost to excel.

So, what is a good balance that can lead Penang and other Malaysian sportsmen towards recurrent victories?

If we are talking about nationalism, let me bring Europe’s sports scene to mind. According to research done by the Norwegian School of Sport Science, Western Europe has a lower level of sport nationalism, while Eastern Europe exhibits higher levels. In that report, they mentioned an excerpt from The Guardian which spoke highly of Iceland's success in the Euro 2016, by saying, "What is so fantastic about this adventure is the way it is capturing the whole nation. It's turning into a nationwide romance."

In Malaysia's case, yes, there may not be continued interest in sports, but during the bigger games, everyone dons the Jalur Gemilang, wishing for the chance to sing “Negaraku” in celebration, while others gleefully wish for a public holiday after a big victory.

If Penang were to win the Super League, FA Cup or Malaysia Cup, there is no doubt that Penangites would start talking about football, with some chanting “Haria Penang Haria”.

Despite the strong presence of nationalism, the grip on professionalism should still be tightened for sports to excel. If there are budget constraints, maybe a budget relook is due. If there is a lack of talent, maybe there should be a programme to scour for more. Heading towards a more professional direction will bring about more job opportunities in the industry, along with better promotion.

To push Penang’s sports industry forward, Penang’s Youth and Sports Exco, Soon Lip Chee, initiated the “Sports for All” vision to promote different types of sports through sport clinics. “We are now looking and honing more talent, and we shall see in five years; there will be sports stars coming from Penang,” he says.

“There may be more of a focus on sports celebrated nationally like badminton, but I can say the future is quite bright when it comes to other types of sports. Take snooker, for example, Lim Kok Keong, a Penangite, was the first-ever Malaysian to win the World Amateur Snooker Championship in 2022. Then there is Amir Daniel, who bagged the first medal – a bronze - during the last Commonwealth Games, and Nurul Aliana who won three silver medals in cycling in last year’s Sukma.”

Every success by Malaysians should be celebrated, and every failure seen as a source of knowledge. Whether at the arena or in front of the television, Malaysians love their sports, and their sports personalities. This pride is a great resource in building a nation – and a people.

Avineshwaran Taharumalengam

His love for sports started at age seven, and he is privileged to have a career as a sports writer with The Star. An avid listener and someone who enjoys the various narratives in the game, he believes sports build richer minds and has the ability to unify everyone with its passion and tenacity.