There are many more success stories like Pandelela Rinong’s that have yet to be told in both Sabah and Sarawak.
I HAVE no ace up my sleeve, so I will just lay all my cards on the table. I come from a family where a fair few of us had represented Sabah in football and rugby. Sports is not a passion but more of an obsession for us.
A recent visit to the Sabah State Museum got me thinking.
Sabah was a real sports powerhouse once — names like Olympians Gabuh Pinging and Sium Diau and footballers James Wong and Hassan Sani come to mind.
Looking at their photos and achievements in the just concluded exhibition would fill any Sabahan with pride.
Then there were the tireless officials like Datuk G. S. Kler, who single-handedly made Sabah synonymous with athletics in the country.
Even during the days of the Borneo Games, Sabah was always the top dog out of the three Borneo territories. Names like Irene Pritchard, Patricia Stahlman, Osman Andu, Eric Chin and Peter Govind used to be mentioned with admiration.
But all things must come to pass.
Sabah has since gone very much under the sports radar. Not many can identify with Sabahan stars except maybe for footballer Rozaimi Abdul Rahman.
Where did it all go wrong?
Those days, people used to do sports just for the love of it with no big bucks involved. These days with improved facilities, better coaching and even better financial packages, things are not necessarily better.
We really need to get our mojo going all over again.
If we look at the sports scenario in the state as a whole, what is apparent is that we lack a comprehensive sports master plan. If properly organised and professionally managed, sports can be an alternative lucrative career for many of our youngsters.
Yes, it is a short career but it can be financially rewarding. Many of our own sports stars have become millionaires, the latest being badminton star Datuk Lee Chong Wei.
On the world stage, there are countless wealthy sports stars who made it big through their own blood, sweat and tears.
Who is not envious of the football stars in Europe who earn an equivalent of RM1mil in salaries per week? Even our corporate bigwigs like Tan Sri Vincent Tan and Tan Sri Tony Fernandes have bought English football clubs as their new toys.
Now for Asian parents and their perennial concern for paper qualifications, let them be reminded that many of our sports stars are actually studying at various universities as most of them are expected to end their sporting careers in their 30s or earlier. Thus, there is ample time to develop a second career.
It is a question of how well they manage themselves with all the help and counselling at their disposal. Given their sports background with discipline and focus as second nature, they can do reasonably well in their chosen second careers.
Sabah has over 30 ethnic groups and many are still living in the traditional ways. I am betting on the fact that their youngsters can form a formidable pool of talent that can be groomed into world-beaters.
All we need to do is look at everyday things in a new way. Too often, many of us see sports administrators as having their own agendas at the expense of national glory. When criticised, they get defensive.
Many appear to lack basic management skills and after spending millions in taxpayers’ money, they are seldom made accountable for their failures.
In this new year, we need to move to a higher plane. With our numerous ethnic groups that have natural abilities for certain sports, it is time to capitalise on this strength.
The Bajaus are natural horsemen and they would definitely shine in equestrian sports. Yes, it is an expensive sport but with proper planning, it can definitely be done. But it is not happening. Why?
With our physiques, we can never win gold medals in track events. The focus should be on sports for which we have a natural flair and we should do away with sports where we have to compete with the Usain Bolts of the world!
Then there are the sea-based ethnics who can be groomed into swimmers, divers or rowers because of their natural affinity with water.
Pandelela Rinong used to jump into the river in her village near Kuching. By capitalising on her native talent and training properly, she has made the country proud. And with the financial rewards that come with success, she has improved her family’s standard of living.
There are many similar stories yet to be told in both Sabah and Sarawak, if only we were more innovative.
Human capital development is not just about producing human cogs to feed the capitalist machine. It also entails producing the Pandelelas of the country to realise their true potential by focusing on their natural sports prowess.
Some of the Kadazandusun people, many of whom still live in the interior or mountainous areas of Sabah, probably have bigger lungs than most of us as shown in their track record of participating in the Kinabalu Mountain Race.
With proper focus, they could be good middle-distance or even marathon runners like the Kenyans or the Ethiopians.
Over in Sarawak, they hold annual regattas. Why can’t these native inclinations be channelled into canoeing or kayaking, which are Olympics sports?
With a bit of imagination, who says we can’t produce world-class athletes? Yes, we need good facilities and good coaches. At the end of the day, it’s the human side that needs looking after.
And we can produce winners by concentrating on winnable sports and nurturing our people’s natural strengths and inclinations.
What is stopping Sabah from becoming a sports powerhouse all over again?
And please, never say never...
Jerry Moots is a retired business executive who sees sports as another economic activity and wants to see it be made compulsory in all Malaysian schools. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Opinion Columnist 19/03/2014