Malaysia achieved its Asian Games target! But all is not well in the country's sport development
Winning 32 medals instead of the targeted 27 may overshadow much of the work that still needs to be done to develop sport within the country.
Malaysian officials are breathing a sporting sigh of relief following the recently completed Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. Malaysia won 32 medals total — 6 gold, 8 silver, and 18 bronze — surpassing its target of 27 and finishing in 14th place overall. Among ASEAN nations it was second behind Thailand which finished in 9th place. Table 1 gives the points result for the Top 20 finishers.
The sigh of relief comes after a disastrous SEA Games performance last May in Phnom Penh, so meeting the Asian Games target gives Malaysia some breathing room to prepare for Paris next year. As some have already pointed out though, the problems facing Malaysian sport haven’t gone away. There is still a lack of new athletes, much talked about grassroots programs rarely materialize, and sport associations continue to underperform with the National Sports Council (NSC) doing most of the heavy lifting for athlete development.
The Youth and Sports Ministry, along with other sports experts, should analyse, improve and introduce new strategies to enhance performance at both the elite and grassroots levels.
The Road to Gold (RTG) initiative, designed to support athletes in reaching their peak in Paris, must establish clearer goals for producing an Olympic champion.
It might be a good idea to shift our focus away from winning an Olympic gold in Paris next year and instead concentrate on achieving this goal at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
Paris may not present the most favourable circumstances for success, and by aiming for 2028, we can allow more time for comprehensive preparation and development of our athletes.
This long-term approach will offer a better opportunity to produce the elite talent needed to compete at the highest level and stand a real chance of securing that elusive Olympic gold in Los Angeles. (Ajitpal Singh, New Straits Times, 10 October 2023)
Mr. Singh, and others echoing the same sentiment, are right: Malaysia must take a longer term approach. One that allows the time needed to create talent rather than turning every Olympic cycle into a mad scramble to come home with a gold medal.
But the country has had 60 years to produce an Olympic gold medal, shouldn’t it have happened by now? A reasonable question, and yes, it should have happened by now.
So why hasn’t it?
The basic reason — and I’ve written about this before — is development programs are either non-existent or they are crippled by administrative and governance obstacles. Malaysian sport officials assume all that’s needed for international sport success is to periodically mobilize projects to select and train elite athletes, provide them with whatever they need, and manage the team’s participation in the target event. When the event is over, analyze, critique, and regroup for the next event. Nowhere in this process is there any consideration given to grassroots programs.
If Malaysia is to do well consistently in international sport then it has to abandon its top-down development strategy and recognize that grassroots programs are critical to elite success. Without that, international results will continue to deteriorate. For quite some time Malaysian sport preparation has been out of sync with how sport actually works by emphasizing only the elite level and ignoring any development of recreational and competitive youth programs. Over time this means fewer athletes will achieve a high performance level, thus reducing any sort of competitive depth within the country, and limiting the pool of athletes to choose from when selecting international squads.
In a previous article I wrote about the nine pillars of sport development based on research aimed at comparing elite sport systems and policies. Below are some that could directly aid Malaysia in restructuring its system by strengthening grassroots development.
Ineffective youth development programs
Malaysia spends a lot of money and expertise on its high performance athletes. Programs help top athletes perform better in training, recover from injury, train the mental side of performance, and aid athletes and coaches in other areas as well. This is money well spent. Indeed if the government is going to spend money supporting sport this is where these funds belong.
But athletes who reach upper levels of performance don’t pop out of thin air, they come from what are often called grassroots or youth sport programs. Malaysia needs to support these lower level programs and create more of them. Their effectiveness determines the quality and number of elite athletes who eventually reach the top. The more comprehensive youth programs are the more robust the high performance athletes will be and the better they will be able to perform. One of the reasons Malaysia has so few top level athletes is that youth development programs are small and simply can't produce large numbers of elite level performers. In some sports youth development programs don’t exist at all.
Not just any youth program fits the bill however. There are several factors that form the signature of a strong development program:
It must be able to train a large number of athletes in sites throughout the country - Sport development programs must be large enough to produce a good number of youngsters who will move on to the next level of the sport. This means the number of athletes at the grassroots level has to be large enough to support this.
A good example of how this works is the United States Olympic swimming team. USA Swimming has over 400,000 registered athletes from which only 52 are selected for the Olympic team every four years. The large base assures USA Swimming of the quality of the extremely small number who reach the top. And no matter what other advantages one imagines the United States has in swimming it is the large base of developing athletes that is responsible for its performances at the highest levels.
Development is club based - Youth programs must be consistent and ongoing. To make this possible they have to be based in some kind of club system dedicated to the sport. State associations should spearhead the creation clubs within their states.
Clubs are the lifeblood of sport development. They make the sport 'local' and bind athletes and their families into an activity with other local athletes. In countries with good developmental structures the state and national sport associations take on an administrative role and leave the training and preparation of athletes to the clubs.
Clubs must have a sense of ownership in their sport - Clubs should feel their contribution matters to the Malaysian team and that they are an important part of Malaysia’s sport system. It doesn’t matter if they have their own club athletes on the national team or not. If they are operating a developmental program then they are making an important contribution to Malaysia’s sport effort and they should feel valued for it. Sport associations must find some way to strengthen and empower their sports' club system.
Clubs should be commercial entities - Along with a robust club system there also have to be commercial opportunities within the sport. The days when all youth sport was operated by schools, government bodies, or volunteers are over. Now, for developmental programs to be sustainable they have to allow enterprising groups and individuals to form and operate them as businesses. As long as there is a market commercial opportunities will assure the sport development system is sustainable.
Underperforming sport associations
Sport associations should not receive funding allocations from the Ministry of Youth and Sports if they do not meet developmental key performance indicators (KPIs). Currently a sport association is performing well if it has athletes at the high performance level. This thinking needs to change. If development programs are ever to materialize in Malaysia then funding should be based on auditing of developmental KPIs.
By establishing KPIs to address development issues, the Ministry could financially incentivize the creation of large grassroots programs, and by making annual allocations dependent on achieving KPIs, the sport infrastructure in Malaysia would grow and improve. Naturally, development looks a bit different in each sport but there is enough intellectual firepower within the various sport associations to write suitable KPIs.
While success in international competition is the overall goal, it has no direct effect at the developmental level. The Ministry must establish some way to measure developmental progress in line with proper long-term athlete development principles. KPIs are the way to do this.
A comprehensive analysis of the Malaysian sport system done after the 2012 Olympic Games found a lack of development in the sport associations themselves.
There was a lack of strategic planning in national sport associations,
Very few sports had a holistic competition structure and most sports had no club structure,
Virtually no sport association kept membership records, and
The financial policies and procedures of all sport associations needed substantial development.
The associations are the key to further development of sport. Creation of a club system, national athlete registration, and other structural modifications in areas related to competition and governance are needed for sport to grow and improve.
Associations don't actually do the work required to produce national athletes (or, at least, they shouldn’t), coaches and clubs do this. The most important function for a sport association is to create and support a strong club system.
Thinking the next association president or sports minister is going change everything is wrong. In fact, thinking this way will just put off the necessary changes for a longer period. Conceptual change is needed so the locus of high performance is seen as being a function of coaching and club action. The longer this is delayed the longer sports will decline in a stew of administrative impotence.