Although some countries offer financial incentives to its athletes, a genuine sporting culture may be the best guarantee of success at the Games.
SHOCK and awe just about sums up the stunning achievement of young Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling at the Rio Olympics.
His victory is classic David beating Goliath; he was the underdog from a tiny country that had never won an Olympic gold.
What made it all the sweeter and remarkable is that Schooling beat the mightiest, most decorated Olympian in history – American Michael Phelps who has won 23 gold medals – and set an impressive new record of 50.39 secs for the 100m butterfly event.
When news of Singapore’s first gold medal broke, it quickly overtook other stories emanating from Rio and became the talk of the world.
It eclipsed its Asean neighbours’ own Olympic gold successes: Vietnam’s shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh in the 10m air pistol competition and Thailand’s weightlifters Sopita Tanasan and Sukanya Srisurat in their individual weight classes and certainly overshadowed Malaysian diving duo Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong’s silver in the women’s synchronised 10m platform diving.
All are no small feats but there is a total of 28 sports in the Games, not counting those with multiple disciplines, and the most popular ones for a global audience are gymnastics, track and field and swimming, according to topendsports.com.
Among Asian nations competing in the Games, China and Japan are traditionally strong contenders in gymnastics and swimming although the Chinese gymnasts seem to be doing poorly this time around.
For most other Asian competitors, the sports they excel in tend to be the ones with less mass appeal like archery, shooting, judo, badminton and for some strange reason, women’s weightlifting.
Apart from the Thais, Taiwanese, Filipina and Indonesian female weightlifters have also won medals for their countries.
China remains the sporting powerhouse of Asia, sending its largest delegation of 416 athletes to Rio this year, but they have failed to defend their gold medals in sports they used to dominate like badminton and diving.
As for the glamorous track and field events, there doesn’t seem to be any Asian athlete who can challenge the likes of Usain Bolt.
Meanwhile, the other Asian powerhouse, India, with the second largest population in the world, has never done well at the Olympics, which has been the subject of intense debate among Indian and foreign sports pundits.
India also sent its biggest ever contingent of 118 sportsmen and women, and has so far won only a bronze medal in wrestling.
Winning an Olympic gold medal is the Holy Grail of sports.
The pomp that surrounds the Games gives the gold medallists unparalleled honour and prestige. And the nations they represent go into collective convulsions of ecstasy and nationalistic joy, which make their governments equally happy.
That’s why many nations pour millions into sports programmes to nurture and train promising talents and offer great financial rewards to successful Olympians.
Schooling will get S$1mil (RM3mil) from the Singapore government for his gold medal. Vietnam’s Hoang reportedly will receive US$100,000 (RM400,000), a figure, according to AFP, that is nearly 50 times greater than the country’s average national income, of around US$2,100 (RM8,400).
Malaysia, which is seeing its best ever performance in Rio, thanks to its badminton players and divers, rewards its successful athletes handsomely under its National Sports Council incentive scheme.
An Olympic gold medal winner will receive RM1mil and a monthly pension of RM5,000; a silver medallist, RM600,000 and a RM3,000 pension while a bronze winner gets RM100,000 and a RM2,000 pension.
Taiwan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand have similar monetary reward schemes. North Korea uses a carrot and stick scheme: huge rewards for medal winners and hard labour for the failed ones.
Several western countries have the same financial bait, including the United States, France, Russia and Germany, but at a lower rate.
Does it work?
The Technology Policy Institute looked for a correlation and was mindful of variables like country size and income, “since those are surely the biggest predictor of how many medals a country will win: more populous countries are more likely to have that rare human who is physically built and mentally able to become an Olympic athlete, while richer countries are more likely to be able to invest in training those people.”
The researchers found no correlation between monetary payments and medals and said it was not surprising in some countries. In the United States, for example, a US$25,000 (RM100,000) cash award would be dwarfed by million-dollar endorsements the athlete could get.
The researchers also set out to see if the results were different for countries with lower opportunities for endorsements. Their conclusion: “overall the evidence suggests that these payments don’t increase the medal count” either.
Rather, countries that do well are those with a longstanding sporting culture that values and nurtures their athletes long before they qualify for the Olympics.
That is evident in Western societies where sportsmen, even at the college level, are feted and idolised. In Asia, however, the emphasis is more on book-learning and earning prestigious degrees.
The BBC quotes Indian Olympic Association head Narayana Ramachandran as saying India’s sorry performance is more than just a shortage of cash or organisation.
“Sport has always taken a back seat vis-á-vis education. Most Indian families would prefer their children became dentists or accountants than Olympians,” he says.
But that attitude is surely changing as more Asian sportsmen and women go professional and are able to make a good living.
In Malaysia, its most popular sportsman, badminton star Datuk Lee Chong Wei, is highly successful with a number of endorsements under his belt.
For now, it is still the Western countries that dominate the Olympic medal tally table. But it’s only a matter of time before more Asian nations, once no-hopers at the Games, rise up the charts.
It’s already started. The Rio Games will go down in history as a watershed for Asean, with two member states – Singapore and Vietnam – winning their first gold medals. May it be so for Malaysia, too.
By June H.L Wong Chief Operating Officer (Content Development) The Star, Malaysia.
The writer was the former group chief editor of The Star Media Group Malaysia. This is the eighth article in a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
Heartbreak again for Chong Wei, Chen Long takes gold
RIO DE JANEIRO: Lee Chong Wei, the king of Malaysian badminton, will leave the Rio de Janeiro Olympics without the crown – and so will Malaysia without the coveted gold.
The 33-year-old lost his third Olympic final after going down 18-21, 18-21 to Chen Long at the Riocentro Pavilion 4 on Saturday.
It was indeed a painful end for Malaysia as it was the third false dawn. Earlier, Malaysia had also lost in the men’s doubles and mixed doubles finals.
Malaysia thus will return home with a total of four silvers and one bronze.
The other three silvers came from Chan Peng Soon-Goh Liu Ying (mixed doubles), Goh V Shem-Tan Wee Kiong (men’s doubles) and divers Pandelela Rinong-Cheong Jun Hoong (women’s 10m platform synchro). Cyclist Azizulhasni Awang contributed the sole bronze through the men’s keirin.
Both Chong Wei, playing in probably his last Olympics, and Chen Long went onto the court to loud cheers from their countries’ supporters.
Chong Wei, who lost to Lin Dan at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London finals, looked tentative in the beginning to allow Chen Long to open up a 4-0 lead. But he recovered his composure to lead 5-4.
After that, they traded point until it was 7-7 before Chong Wei pulled away for an 11-7 and then 14-10 lead.
But Chen Long refused to go away and managed to level at 14-14.
Twice Chong Wei surged in front but Chen Long capitalised on the Malaysian’s mistakes at the net to lead 20-17. Although world No. 1 Chong Wei managed to save one match point, his failure to return a smash gave Chen Long a 21-18 win in 35 minutes.
Oozing confidence, Chen Long was always in front in the second game – leading 4-1 and 5-2.
But Chong Wei fought back to go 8-5 up. Chen Long then went on a smashing spree, winning six points for an 11-8 advantage.
The 27-year-old world No. 2 never looked back after that as he always had at least a three-point lead.
Everything looked lost for Chong Wei as Chen Long reached 20-16. The Malaysian saved two match points but then sent the shuttle out to lose 18-21 in 38 minutes.
For Chen Long, it was his first Olympic gold to add to his two All-England and World Championships crowns.
Chong Wei can only look in envy as he’s still without a world or Olympic crown. He also lost in three World Championships finals.
Chen Long’s gold was only China’s second at these Games after Fu Haifeng-Zhang Nan triumphed in the men’s doubles.
Earlier, two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan fell from grace in probably his last Olympic outing after losing 21-15, 10-21, 17-21 to Dane Viktor Axelson in the 70-minute bronze medal playoff.
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