Tuesday, September 28

Olympian dreams

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AFTER many delays and doubts about whether it would actually happen, the arena has finally been opened, and our representatives now have the chance to showcase their intentions and ability for the sake of the country. Opportunities for such greatness and admiration come rarely, and the stakes are higher when an entire nation is pinning their hopes on good news amidst the continuing numbness and hardship of Covid-19.

The 2020 Olympic Games taking place in 2021 are far from normal. Most visibly strange are spectator-less venues, in contrast to the packed venues just weeks ago at Wimbledon or across European football stadia. This removes the constant, palpable energy of the crowd, while mask-clad athletes, coaches, and officials obscure usual powerful displays of emotion. Finally, reports of the extent of public discontent, or at least apathy, in the host city itself must be unprecedented in the history of the Games, whether you count from 776 BCE or 1896.

Even before the Games, the feelings among Malaysians seemed mixed, mirroring the (by now well-known) opposing views on a domestic level about whether more things should open up or remain closed. While some sympathise with the fact that athletes have been training hard for their dream opportunity to compete in the Olympics, others lump athletes and sporting events in the same category as needlessly elitist during a time of difficulty for so many.

But what the latter group forget is the enduring power of inspiration and the overarching role that sport plays in fostering national pride. Even before Covid, our nation was racked with divisions that sporting success had a unique ability to overcome. Depending on our sport of choice, we fondly remember those triumphant forehand smashes and backhand volleys, the furious pedalling and sprinting, and the twists, somersaults and handsprings that secured gold medals at the SEA Games, Asian Games, and Commonwealth Games (events at which, once upon a time, we didn’t win many medals at either).

In those moments, when Malaysians of every creed and colour belt out Negaraku to celebrate achievements based on merit, discipline and teamwork, a society living according to these same principles becomes imaginable.

At least, that it what I thought. It would seem, this time, that many Malaysians take a different view. Much of the criticism spewed against some of our athletes for their performance, or even their attire, is too profane to be repeated here. While there are definitely legitimate questions about the efficiency of government investment in sport, or constructive debates about suitable dress codes, unjustified attacks on our athletes are sad to see, and perhaps stem from expectations of instant gratification, while keyboard warriors enjoy condemnation without consequences on social media.

That is both ironic and tragic, for if there was ever a time for lessons to be learnt from sport, it is now. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra often spoke of sport as a catalyst for nation-building: in learning the rules of sports and fair play, you prepare the young mind for the rule of law and checks and balances. You learn how to lose gracefully, and more importantly, to win gracefully. This is in addition to the health benefits and community development that grassroots sports fosters. Our Bapa Malaysia even singled out football as the sport by which Malaysia can be a united nation.

Still, international politics does sometimes get in the way, such as when we joined 65 other countries to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, despite qualifying for the football. In more recent times, sports geopolitics has denied Malaysia gold medals, since squash is repeatedly rejected as an Olympic sport. It remains my hope that one day, an Oghang Nogori will stand atop the Olympic podium for squash: our juniors have certainly continued training at home during the MCO.

In the meantime, our Dewan Rakyat (to which first paragraph of this article equally applies) is resembling a boisterous stadium. As I write, uproar has been caused by the stunning revelation that the Emergency Ordinances have been annulled (or have they? — there are mixed messages there), and whether that is even Constitutional, and further raising doubts about whether the increased fines issued for violating the MCO since July 21, 2021 are valid.

The rules of our nation, just like the rules of a sport, are laid down definitively in writing — our Federal Constitution. From time to time it gets amended with the approval of all those playing. But its smooth functioning requires line judges, umpires and referees — the checks and balances — to function properly. In recent months, some, like the Conference of Rulers, have done so admirably. Others have not, setting back our international gold medal prospects.

Perhaps Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik (who just annihilated the top-ranked Indonesian pair in the badminton men’s doubles) can show us what that feels like.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is president of the Negeri Sembilan Squash Association.