Sat, 06 Dec 2003

All the best for our athletes

The Southeast Asian Games opened on Friday at the My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam, with much fanfare.

The 22nd Games are particularly significant on two counts. First because it is the first time Vietnam has hosted the biennial event. So far, only six countries, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam have hosted the Games.

It is also the first time East Timor, the youngest nation in the world after its secession in 1999 from Indonesia, joins the Games, bringing the number of contesting countries to 11.

Indonesia's 597 athletes will compete to achieve the target set by the National Sports Council (KONI) to bring home at least 70 gold medals. In the 32 sports contested there are 427 winner's medals at stake.

The target is only half of that targeted by archrival Thailand, which has set its sights on 140 golds.

Four years ago, Indonesia set its hopes on 70 golds, but was only able to nail down 44, bowing out to Thailand and, surprisingly, Malaysia. It was the first time that Indonesia finished in third place after previously always coming first. The country has been unable to pick up the pace ever since.

Sports officials failed to learn from the experience and the national squad again finished third in the 2001 Games in Kuala Lumpur with 71 golds, after host Malaysia with 111 golds and Thailand with 104 golds.

What is the reason?

Sports officials used to blame the lack of funds, due to the 1997 economic crisis that hit Indonesia and the region. But their argument overlooked the fact that Indonesia wasn't the only country under financial strain. Thailand and Malaysia were also hit by the crisis yet still excelled in the event. And now we can witness Vietnam emerging as a powerful contender. In line with its ambition for sporting excellence, Vietnam spent US$350 million on the construction of 36 stadiums, arenas and training centers ion preparation for the Games.

Indonesia's failure can be traced from sports development at the grassroots level. With fewer and fewer schools having their own sports facilities -- particularly for track and field events, gymnastics and swimming, events that are "gold-medal mines" for the winning countries -- many youngsters are deprived of participating in these sports.

With a population of more than 210 million citizens, Indonesia has only the Bung Karno Sports Complex, built in 1962 for the fourth Asian Games in Jakarta. The sports complex met international standards at the time, but its condition is now poor.

School curricula, that emphasize intellectual capacity rather than physical activity, are also a major factor in the country's failure in the Asian Games arena.

These factors lead to an inconsistency in long-term training programs, which are crucial in creating champions. Students with athletic ability reach the point-of-no-return when they are convinced to follow an academic path rather than a career in sports.

For potential athletes their crucial decision is an early one. Choosing an academic education means forgoing their heyday, but opens the chance of becoming an otherwise successful individual in society. Pursuing a career in sports means they may get the glory, although for a limited period, but a less-than bright- future after their retirement.

The situation is worsened by the government's lack of recognition for international-class athletes.

Even Olympic gold medalists, like shuttlers Rexy Mainaky or Candra Wijaya, only get a cash bonus (minus income tax) after their victories dwindle. There is no such financial support such as a pension, or even free facilities, for these sporting greats. Therefore, parents are reluctant to encourage their children to become athletes.

Indonesia must learn from neighboring countries like Thailand and Malaysia, which give full recognition and support to their athletes.

This support is not just material, like the construction of sports complexes in universities or districts. Sports campaigns, whereby "big" sports teams are invited from all over the world to show off their abilities to the youngsters are also promoted.

Can Indonesia follow in their steps?

With state officials busy preparing themselves for next year's elections, there is little chance for our athletes to win their support. The athletes have to work hard on their own and the public should give them more concrete support, especially those youngsters who fight hard abroad to hoist the red-and-white flag and play the Indonesia Raya national anthem.

All the best for the Indonesian squad in Vietnam.