Malaysia: Games For The Rich And Strong

2001

Dr Eric G.S. Loo

Sport is more of a privileged pastime than a life-changing profession in developing Asia, but the modern Olympic games are just that – a mecca for the rich and strong. Whatever representation there is from poor Asian nations, they're there just to make up the numbers. Or that was how the Malaysian media rationalised the many trials but few successes of Asian Olympians in general.

Reportage highlighted the uneven playing field where wealthy nations like the US and Australia, spent more money on one athlete than Equatorial Guinea or Laos could afford for their entire team. When the main goal of the poor and impoverished is to seek food and shelter just to survive for another day, the Olympic pitch of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ was read as unreal, beyond the reach of the poor and weak. With such divergent life situations and priorities, the poor nations were expected to be under-exposed in the Olympics. As a Malaysian commentator noted, Asians would only shine in the Asian Games.

The general subtext read along the lines of ‘… (since) we can't compete with the big guys, let's think about what we can do to be stronger’. Where Asian athletes in the Sydney Olympics only managed to get a paragraph or two in the Australian media, they sparked the breaking news in the Malaysian papers. Amidst the routine coverage of the medallists, the theme focused on battling Asia and its diehard athletes – as seen through the eyes of the agencies, Reuters and AP, and a couple of Malaysian correspondents.

Self-effacing deadlines refleted mixed confidence: ‘Asia could achieve best-ever showing’. ‘Asians still lagging in medal chase’, ‘Asians still live in the shadows’. ‘Asians show their mettle – China dominated but neighbours also made their mark in Sydney’. ‘Malaysians get set for the party – Little is expected of our athletes’. ‘Dwarfs in a world of giants’.

A New Straits Times correspondent wrote: ‘The hard work begins today for the Malaysian contingent as they step onto the world stage against opponents who could be intimidating and unforgiving.’ (NST, 16 September 2000). ‘Malaysian sportsmen and women, like their counterparts the world over, undertake this journey every four years. The difference is each time, we end up wondering if there is a place for us under the Olympic sun, let alone the podium … The spectacle of Sydney is over … the burning question for Malaysia is are we there merely to make up the numbers… Qualification is one thing, competing is another.’ (NST, 2 October 2000)

The self-effacing profile is countered by daily features on the ‘nobodies’ in the Games, such as the athletes from Cambodia, Laos, Qatar, a cleaning lady in the Olympic village – all under the banner ‘Against All Odds’, and ‘Heartbreak Story’.

How were Sydney and Australia portrayed in the Malaysian media?Except for such predictable items as protests by the Aborigines, Bondi residents and stories on drug cheats, Sydney had a good run. Conspicuous by their absence were stories on migration and race issues, with which the Malaysian media were obsessed between 1996 and 1998. Hansonism is history, extricated, at least during the Games, from the Malaysian collective memory by the Games' brassy opening ceremony. To that extent, the Olympic publicity machine did project Sydney as a sophisticated, creative, cool city of sunshine and down-to-earth operational efficiency. Ironically, its creative composition of Australiana stirred the curiosity of Malaysians, as reflected in various letters to the editor, asking where the ashen Aborigines came from. After all, the daily dosage of colourful ‘Sydney Images’ published in the local papers were prominently Anglo in content.

The competitive chasm between Asia and the West during the Games prompted the Malaysian media to look inward at its national values and attitudes towards sports in general. Agenda Malaysia, an online news site, observed in October that Malaysia had hosted the 1998 Commonwealth Games, been the favourite for the Asian Games, and splendidly staged football's World Youth Cup and motor racing's grand prix, among many other events. ‘But what they have conspicuously failed to do is put us on the Olympic medals table – a stark reminder that it is much easier to create a world-class facility than a world-class athlete.’

WATCHPOINT: How will Malaysia respond to China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games?

 

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