SEA Games (part 1): What's up with Malaysia's sport system?
Results for the Malaysian contingent at the Phnom Penh SEA Games highlight the same issues that have plagued Malaysian sport for the past few decades.
It's not a good time to be a Malaysian sport official. The recent SEA Games result is being billed by the press, fans, and some politicians as Malaysia's worst ever SEA Games performance. In a multiple sport event this kind of evaluation is meaningless, but commentary like this is common in Malaysia. I'll have a full analysis in the next edition of this newsletter of what I think Malaysians need to do to get sports back on track in their country; this article is an appetizer for what's coming. I originally published this in 2018 when Norway was being regarded as the Mouse That Roared and other superlatives. The comments I made then are still valid but sadly I don't think many in authority are paying attention.
Originally published at sportkid.asia in March 2018
What does Norway know about sport development that can help Malaysia capture its elusive first Olympic Gold? Maybe more than people think! Compared to Malaysia, Norway is a very small country having fewer than 6 million people. Yet in the recently completed Olympic Winter Games it took home more medals than any other country including sport giants like Germany, Canada, and the United States and set a new record for the number of medals won overall.
How does Norway do this? How can a country with such a small population outshine the entire rest of the world in athletic competition?
One reason of course is climate. Norway's decisions about which sports to participate in are informed by its high annual snowfall, low temperatures, and long winter months. But lots of northern countries have these same conditions, some with much larger populations, and don't do anywhere near as well as Norway in winter sports.
Here are a few ideas about why Norway is successful in its sport performance:
Norway doesn't waste money on sports no one plays - Skiing, especially cross-country, is almost second nature to many Norwegians so it's no surprise that Norway has large development programs for skiers. But not all sliding sports gain favor. Bobsleigh and skeleton, for example, are considered too expensive and attract only limited participation. Because of this Norway doesn't focus on them; instead money and energy go to sports where mass participation can be developed.
Norway's total investment in sport (both winter and summer) is about RM 71 million. Compare this to Malaysia's allocation of RM 1 billion for 2018 and it's only natural to wonder if Malaysia is spending its money wisely.
This disparity highlights another point: Norway is rich, Malaysia not so much. Sport development in Malaysia may cost more simply because the cost is borne by the government. In Norway it falls mostly to participants and thus is not calculated in the same way. Training fees, club memberships, etc. are either paid privately or through sponsorships.
The point though is that equatorial Malaysia should not be investing time and money into boutique sports like skiing and ice skating. These will never be mass participation activities. Their limited appeal in a tropical country should mean that their governing associations need to find ways to operate independently. They must pay their own way. If they develop athletes capable of competing on an international level, great! But it simply is not prudent to use public funds to support them.
Norway understands the link between grassroots participation and high performance - There are over 11,000 local sport clubs in Norway and 93% of Norwegian children regularly play and train in various sports. This kind of participation massively expands the future talent pool.
This emphasis on club participation also lets clubs do what they do best. A good club system offers the opportunity for many centers of excellence in coaching and performance. Ten coaches can produce ten different approaches to training and with many more athletes than can be trained in just one club or one training center as is the case when sport associations organize centralized training programs.
This is in direct contrast to the model currently employed in Malaysia of having only one main training center for each sport. Membership on some national teams seems to be almost permanent appointments with 'outsiders' given little chance to break into the squad. Athletes in some sports will never get the chance to represent the country unless they "join" their respective associations. Sport associations that do this are setting themselves up as superclubs that seek to draw all the elite level athletes into their orbit and effectively, though maybe not deliberately, sucking the life out of clubs that produced these top performers in the first place.
The hubristic "we know best" attitude of some associations prevents them from truly seeing the worth of a club, the value of a different training system, or simply a different point of view. Forcing everyone to dance to the same tune destroys the value of a diverse knowledge base and the variety of training methods that many coaches can bring to the table. This attitude leads to almost every other problem facing sport development in Malaysia.
Finally, Norway has a sport culture that supports not only the elite level of competition but also the developmental stages. Sport is fun, healthy, and offers opportunities to socialize with friends. Here in Malaysia sport is viewed more as a possible career than an enjoyable activity. It's hard to keep youngsters involved when an early lack of skills signals no reason to continue playing. Building a sport culture where none exists is not easy but not trying because it's hard is not the answer either.
Taking a few tips from Norway might put Malaysia on track for its first Olympic Gold.