We are KL: The gold-getters
Emma Chong talks to five national athletes about the reality of professional sports in Malaysia, and where it’s all going.
At the recent SEA Games 2011, Malaysia came home with 59 gold medals, 50 silvers and 81 bronzes, placing fourth amongst the 11 countries. In the Commonwealth Games 2010, we placed a respectable seventh, with our medal tally at 35, 12 of which were gold (the same as numbers five and six, South Africa and Kenya). Lee Chong Wei is the world number one men’s singles shuttler. Nicol David is the world number one women’s squash player. But to everyone apart from the sports industry insiders and knowledgeable fans, athletes and their activities are an occasional blip on our radar, and outside those moments don’t exist. What goes on inside the secret world of athletes?
They work hard for the money
First, there’s the training. When we meet Leong Mun Yee and Pandelela Rinong, gold-winning synchronised divers and two of Malaysia’s most consistently performing athletes, they’re clearly exhausted. They’ve come straight from a four-hour stint at the pool, on a Saturday, and Mun Yee is nursing an injury. ‘A lot of people say, “How hard can it be? You train twice a day then you do nothing”,’ says Azlan Iskandar, world number ten men’s squash player, highly vocal sports development advocate, and the girls’ manager.
Leong Mun Yee, synchronised diver
The London Olympics are coming up and that means yup, ‘Training every day,’ Mun Yee says with a wan smile, ‘Starting at 8.30am.’ Khoo Cai Lin knows what it’s like to train hard as well. The record-holder (five, to be exact) had just come off the end of a meagre two-week break after the SEA Games, about to head right back into training. ‘The Olympics are just a whole different level of competition. Even compared to the World Championships, it’s so much bigger,’ she says. ‘At my first Olympics, just going out there scared me because there were so many people in the audience.’ But that’s what they’re all training for – and they’ve been doing it for years.
The girls have been bringing home the medals for quite a while now – the SEA Games, the World Championships, the Asian Games. ‘Mun Yee has been involved in diving forever. Only now she’s getting some recognition,’ Azlan says. ‘It’s brutal.’ Most of us can’t handle the pressure of a single boss; how does one deal with the stress of an entire nation willing you on to succeed but criticising every misstep? ‘Most of the time I just block it out,’ Cai Lin admits. ‘If you think about it too much, it’s just too much to handle.’
Pandelela Rinong, synchronised diver
For evidence, look no further than Lee Chong Wei’s recent defeat by Lin Dan in the 2011 Yonex BWF World Badminton Championships. The Datuk was slayed in the press, to say nothing of the blogs, Facebook and Twitter, where Malaysians were personally aggrieved that they hadn’t been given another gold. ‘Chong Wei doesn’t win and the press go hard on him – okay, who else you got?’ Azlan challenges. ‘We have two absolute role models in Lee Chong Wei and Nicol David; I have the utmost respect for both of them. They’re doing Malaysia proud. But people think if you’re not world number one, you’re not good enough for the country. It’s a little harsh to look at things that way. Everyone’s doing as much as we can. A lot of people don’t realise that how well we do relates directly to how much [monetary remuneration] we take back each year. So you tell me, why would we not want to do well?’
Money money money
And speaking of money, where is it coming from? Cai Lin, Mun Yee and Lela are funded by Majlis Sukan Negara (MSN), meaning that their food, lodging and training are provided, as well as nutritional and medical support. Outside that though, there’s not a lot. And not all athletes receive that kind of funding either. Gary Tan is the foremost member of his field, the captain of the national ice hockey team, and he often has to fund his own tournament and training trips. MSN provides his team the facilities to train and a modicum of support, but none of the financial kind. Gary remains cheerfully stoic about it though.
Gary Tan, ice hockey player
‘I wanted to do it, so I had to find the means to do it,’ he explains matter-of-factly. His team’s funding is a mix of private and corporate, and they don’t take anything for granted. Nor is there any resentment that his sport is less funded than the big Olympic sports. ‘I know that’s the way the ball rolls. We would love some funding of course – who wouldn’t? But in terms of what we have, we’ve done a really good job.’ Funding is a thorny issue, and none of the athletes are eager to cast the first stone. For Azlan, the answer lies in corporate sponsorship. ‘There’s still this dilemma with federations where they want total control of the athletes,’ he explains. ‘I believe they have every right to that but not if they’re not taking care of the athletes’ welfare, which is my biggest concern. Our athletes won’t have that hunger to win if they’re constantly fighting to survive.’
Nine to five
It doesn’t sound much like the life you’d want for a child – struggling for money, training every day, lambasted by the papers for your failures. But parents play a big part in the establishment of professional athlete careers, as Cai Lin well knows. ‘I was actually forced to swim by my mum,’ she says cheekily. It was the winning that did it – when she started to win interstate competitions at age 12, something clicked. ‘That’s when I started to have a passion for swimming.’ And it was the same for Mun Yee: ‘My parents wanted me to do it, but after I began I liked it.’
Khoo Cai Lin, swimmer
These people have been working since they were nine or ten, training full-time for competitions and championships. Some, like Mun Yee and Lela, were transplanted from their home states and brought to the big city before even reaching their teens. They see their family a couple of times a year and spend the majority of their time in Bukit Jalil, training, eating or sleeping. ‘It’s a little bit frustrating because sports is a full-time job,’ Azlan says. ‘People think that it’s just a hobby for us.'
It takes commitment. Cai Lin hasn’t had nasi lemak for two years, nor does she partake of fast or fried food. ‘Yes I missed out on what may have been a “normal” childhood because my life only revolved around school, tuition and swimming then,’ Cai Lin says. ‘But I don’t regret it at all because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t “forced” to swim [laughs]’. Even now she is cheerful about the things she does without – ‘Late nights are a big no no. Once in a while I do go out and party if there is no training the next day. But if there’s competitions coming up then I don’t go out at all.’
Azlan Iskandar, squash player
Aside from the social limitations, how viable is sports as a career? ‘People say they don’t want to choose a sporting career because there’s no future in it,’ says Cai Lin. ‘They need to start improving the facilities and encouraging people to get into sports – make it available as a good career path.’ There aren’t enough jobs, that’s for sure, which means that no one thinks of going into the sports industry, which means there isn’t growth, which means there aren’t any jobs. It’s a vicious cycle, which Azlan knows well. ‘You need to create the industry from a grassroots level – with just ten per cent of school children, that’s already 2,000 kids on average per state who are potentially interested in sports. Imagine that number growing every year. That’s a huge market! But people lack that kind of vision. It’s got to be broken down, point by point, and that’s what I’m trying to do.’
More athletes, more funding, more golds – what would a push for the sports industry mean in Malaysia? We’re already firmly in the international eye, though it seems unfair that Nicol David has to compete with the Obedient Wives Club for press attention. How about here at home? ‘Well, they’re trying to push Malaysia to be a high income country and I feel sports definitely has its role in that,’ says Azlan. ‘If the development is going to be nationwide, imagine the job opportunities you’d be creating! And you’re also stimulating the sports retail scene and sports journalism, education and management. There’s a big, holistic picture.’