By DEVINDER SINGH – 25 December 2014 @ 8:12 AM
MALAYSIAN athletics reached a trough in 2013 but there were encouraging signs this year that the future holds much promise – that is if the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF) steers clear of petty jealousies and inept leadership.
Conflict within MAF led to a steady decline in performances since 1997, especially at the Sea Games, but the rise of promising young athletes over the last two years looks set to lift the sport out of the doldrums.
This new-found optimism, however, has been tempered by the return of Karim Ibrahim as MAF president and the election of an all new executive committee.
Karim departed MAF in 2012 in controversial circumstances, culminating with an independent inquiry report which pinned the blame for two doping scandals, unaccounted use of funds and poor leadership on his shoulders.
The former MAF deputy president was subsequently banned for six years which Karim successfully challenged in court, arguing MAF had no right to suspend him as he was no longer in MAF.
However, the contents of the inquiry report were never the subject of the court case, which MAF delegates ignored in voting Karim back to office with a 33-7 majority.
The judgement of the majority of MAF’s 14 affiliates aside, Malaysian athletics is well set to see a revival of fortunes at the 2015 Singapore Sea Games.
The 28-year low of four gold medals won at the 2013 Sea Games in Naypyidaw must be seen in the proper context.
MAF, then under the leadership of Datuk Zainal Abidin Ahmad, made the conscious decision to expose many Under-23 athletes.
Though they floundered when sent to the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games this year, most were taking part in a major multi-sport event for the first time and were overcome by the occasion.
However, it is only through such experiences that the young athletes will learn and it is hoped that they will now appreciate what it takes to succeed at major competitions.
Their rise was made possible by a seamless transition from junior level, largely through the work of the state sports councils, to the National Sport Council’s back-up programmes and subsequently to the elite level.
But much more can be done at the grassroots level, which MAF has ignored for the best part of the last 20 years.
The government will be committing millions of ringgit to grassroots development with athletics among the beneficiaries – a much needed shot in the arm — but there is concern about how the allocation will be handled.
MAF is one governing body which has had issues with properly accounting for funding in the past, even being the subject of a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission inquiry at one point.
Should MAF be entrusted with the responsibility of managing the expected government funding, the NSC must be vigilant in ensuring it is held accountable.
It cannot be disputed that the talent is there to be harnessed in track and field, with Malaysia’s record 15-gold achievement at the Asean Schools Games last month a case in point.
MAF’s track record in this regard, however, is poor, riven by in-fighting, jealousy and the athletes and coaches’ disdain for the administrators.
Five national records were set this year by Irfan Shamshuddin (discus), Jackie Wong (hammer), Noor Amira Nafiah (women’s long jump), Yap Jeng Tzan (women’s discus) and Siti Nur Nadiah Osman (women’s hammer).
Triple jumper Hakimi Ismail, pole vaulter Iskandar Alwi and high jumper Yap Sean Yee, all aged 24 or under, are also national record holders.
Siti Nur Afiqah Abdul Razak also set the sport alight with victory in the 400m at the Asian Junior Championships in Taiwan in June, Malaysia’s first gold medal at the meet for 10 years.
At the age of 16, her winning time of 53.93 seconds made her the fourth fastest Malaysian woman of all-time over one lap and the fastest in the last 16 years.
Only the late Rabia Abdul Salam (52.56), Josephine Mary (52.65) and N. Manimagalay (53.71) have ever run faster.
These athletes will come of age in Singapore next year and herald a new dawn for Malaysian athletics but with the caveat that MAF officials must stay out of their way