SEA Games (part 2): Malaysia needs a new sport model
Results for the Malaysian contingent in Phnom Penh highlight the same issues that have plagued Malaysian sport for the past few decades. In this article I propose a new model.
The collapse of the Malaysian sport effort at the recent SEA Games in Phnom Penh, Cambodia triggered a flood of commentary and soul searching from sport officials, politicians, athletes, and the general public. The executive director of the Malaysian Badminton Academy resigned and its high performance director was sacked, the president of Malaysian Athletics embarrassed himself by predicting that an almost fanciful number of gold medals would be won in track & field events, and the president of the National Sports Council has taken both Malaysian Swimming and Malaysian Athletics to task for lackluster results, again.
But should anyone expect changes to how Malaysia administers sport as a result of its SEA Games performance? Probably not.
Things will continue as they always have if past practice is any guide. Preparations for the Asian Games in September and the Olympic Games next year are already underway. Efforts may be intensified with the intention that “…this time they'll be done better!”, but the inertia inherent in the administrative model makes real change difficult.
But the changes needed are not simply tweaks to the current model. Revitalizing Malaysia's sport efforts will require an entirely new model, one empowering all levels of administration and which provides a clear understanding of one's role within the country's sport hierarchy. These are long-term changes that will eventually open up sport administration to a much larger segment of Malaysian sport aficionados and which will gradually move away from the claustrophobic style of administration currently in place.
Top-down vs. bottom-up administration
The three main players in Malaysia's current sport set up: the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM), the National Sports Council (NSC), and the Ministry for Youth and Sports form the apex of the top-down style of sport administration in the country. Surprisingly, national governing bodies (NGBs), which Malaysia refers to as sport associations, occupy peripheral positions with only token input in overseeing multiple sport events like the SEA Games. Sport clubs and local coaches are not part of the leadership process at all.
While leadership from the top makes sense in terms of administration i.e. the bureaucracy needed to organize such events, it has no effect on performance. It is a complete fiction that the NSC, the OCM, or the ministry can influence athlete performance other than what providing food and accommodation would support. Under the current system however, tweaking administrative practices, committee assignments, or funding allocations are the only tools available in the top-down model, thus they are the go-to changes when change is necessary. It's a perfect illustration of the old saying, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
Top-down administration also effectively eliminates large swaths of sport practitioners from participating in leadership within their NGB. These are local coaches, officials, and administrators who know a thing or two about their sport but who are effectively kept out of the picture because of the way sport is administered and because of the nature of the governance structure of the NGB.
Switching from the current top-down, micromanagement model to one supporting bottom-up development is one critical change that should be seriously considered. Instead of decision making at the highest levels, operational decisions should be made locally by those directly involved in grassroots programs. This is where development actually takes place.
National sport development is a bottom-up process
Getting youngsters into training and competition programs starts at the grassroots level with practitioners who meet athletes in local clubs, schools, or rural villages; where decisions are made locally; and where local conditions are understood by those involved. The development process can only be successful if it occurs where athletes live.
The bottom-up model gets more athletes, coaches, and parents involved in the process and is able to keep them involved long enough to make a difference. The top-down model ends up working with a very small number of athletes because to be efficient requires that elimination of youngsters deemed "untalented" take place as soon as possible. In a bottom-up model this isn't important, no one has to be eliminated and youngsters can continue participation as long as they enjoy what they're doing. Not all athletes in a grassroots program will be successful but those who eventually excel will become part of a crop of new athletes with a decidedly better preparatory background than current national athletes.
Naturally grassroots development would have to be operated by the NGBs and, unfortunately, Malaysian NGBs are not good at this. Part of the reason is that leadership in the NGB is strongly influenced by a VIP culture and deference to social status. This is why many NGB presidents are politicians or other persons of high social status but who have no real knowledge of the sport they lead other than what the typical fan might have.
Additionally, NGBs have never had to operate real grassroots programs or figure out ways to get more participation or "buy-in" from local practitioners. But if NGB funding can be tied to creation and maintenance of grassroots development then the ministry or the NSC can effectively begin paying for what is needed to improve Malaysian sport outcomes rather than just rewarding performance as it does now.
This would require several changes to the current model:
NGBs would become membership organizations. Everyone involved in a particular sport would be required to be a member of their NGB. This includes coaches, clubs, athletes, officials, and administrators.
Every member would be eligible to run for election, hold office, serve on committees, etc. This would slowly but inevitably eliminate the VIP mentality and allow those who have real knowledge of the sport to make operational decisions and hold leadership positions.
State associations would be directly affiliated with the NGB and not some quasi-state run body as they are now.
Government funding for the NGB would be tied to strict KPIs related to sport development, the restructuring of NGB governance, and other measures that lead to long-term performance benefits. Tying funding to developmental KPIs is a very powerful tool. Instead of rewarding performance, which is mostly how funding is distributed now, NGBs would receive funding based on what will lead to future success.
Note that some of the changes above may clash with duties of the "sports commissioner" outlined in the Sports Development Act of 1997, so amendment of the Act may be necessary to implement all changes.
A membership organization can dramatically increase the agency of coaches, clubs, and others who now have no decision making role
Currently those who know the most about a sport are the farthest away from any kind of leadership opportunities or decision making responsibility. More agency will eventually lead to more involvement by more people throughout the country. Development will become a shared responsibility between coaches, clubs, and states rather than something controlled and operated only from the highest level, as it is now.
Agency by all involved will provide a sense of ownership. Sport clubs throughout the country will have a clear understanding of the value of their role within a sport. This is precisely what has been missing from Malaysian sport. Top-down administration cannot effectively implement developmental programs, this can only happen locally.
Agency will revitalize the club system in some sports. Under the top-down model some NGBs operate as super clubs. The national teams in individual sports like swimming, gymnastics, and badminton are good examples. National teams are formed by taking the top athletes from various clubs and training them under a centralized program controlled by the NGB. The clubs and the coaches who produced these athletes get no benefit from this and thus have little incentive to support national programs. By making sport clubs integral parts of national sport administration all developmental programs can be expanded and strengthened.
The best thing about these changes is that implementation costs are low. Transferring leadership and decision making authority to individuals and groups who were previously voiceless within the national sport infrastructure is incentive enough to get improvements debated and implemented by people who know what they're doing. Strengthening NGBs and giving them agency and incentive to develop their sports, and not just talk about it, is the most progressive step needed to get Malaysian sport back on track.
In terms of how Malaysia has traditionally operated its sport programs this is a radical proposal. But it's one that can determine whether or not Malaysia continues its decline into sport obscurity or begins the long journey back to sport excellence.