The Lee Chong Wei Effect
AUG 8 ― Last Sunday, for the first time in my life, I literally bit my nails. I paced around my living room, I jumped up and down, I cheered and groaned, and finally, at the end, I am not ashamed to admit that I cried ― and I’m very sure that I wasn’t the only Malaysian to have done the same, no matter where we were.
Social media has ensured that we could all share our elation and heartbreak. My Facebook page was buzzing with comments about the match between Datuk Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan; Forbes reports that Datuk Lee Chong Wei had almost half a million tweets during the match (and yes, we won that “match”; Lin Dan only managed about 238,000 mentions) and the hashtag #ThankYouLeeChongWei trended at number 3 in Twitter’s worldwide trends list at the end of the match.
He may have lost the match to Lin Dan, but in losing Datuk Lee Chong Wei won the respect, admiration and support of the entire country (as for the detractors: shame on you! You must be truly blind if you were unable to see how much Datuk Lee Chong Wei put into the game; he was simply unlucky).
Kadazan, Chinese, Malay, Indian ― none of that mattered. All cheered the Bukit Mertajam player and willed him to win gold. That he lost mattered not; we could see how hard he fought and how much he wanted to win. We sympathised with his tears, because we knew that he cried not for himself, but for not being able to give us the gold we wanted so much. In short, a national hero; a real Malaysian.
Sport matters. Sport unifies us the way nothing else can. Can you imagine Malaysians uniting behind any other national figure? A politician, perhaps? Or a singer? An academic? No, neither can I. Yet sport transcends our boundaries. Sport allows us to be comfortable with each other. Sport allows us to become one.
Living in London, it has been wonderful to witness the effect of the Olympics. Before the start of the Games, the British would have won a gold medal if complaining was a sport ― the list of woes included potential transport chaos, the use of the Olympics-only lanes, ticket allocation, the cost of the Olympics, even the weather.
Yet now that the games are underway, the British have thrown their support wholeheartedly behind Team GB and on making the Games a success. The much-feared transport chaos has dwindled to just the chaos that you get on any normal day in London. People seem to be friendlier and there is a real sense of, well, niceness.
Whilst the real legacy of the Games can only be known in the years ahead, there is no doubting that youngsters in Britain now have a higher awareness of diverse sports, and a greater number of sporting heroes to look up to.
Wouldn’t it be great if we too have a plethora of sporting heroes? I can’t help feeling that we are becoming more and more polarised as a nation, and we sorely need icons that we can all identify with. Datuk Lee Chong Wei is obviously one, but in a nation of 28 million why is it so hard to find more?
In 1996, the UK won only one gold medal. Fast forward to four Olympic Games later, and Team GB is sitting third in the medals table with over 20 gold medals. Sixteen years was all it took. Of course, you could argue that Britain already had a history of sporting excellence. Yet it was only in May 2007 ― a mere five years ago ― that some of Team GB’s 2012 gold medallists took up their sport.
In February 2007 the UK Talent Team set out to find potential Olympic athletes in rowing, handball and volleyball. There were three basic criteria: the applicants had to be of a certain height, between 16 and 25, and have an athletic background.
There were around 4,800 applications; out of all those people, Heather Stanning, an army captain, and her rowing partner, Helen Glover, a former PE teacher, won the gold medal in the women’s coxless pairs.
If Malaysia were to institute such a plan, it may be worth looking at sports that we might actually be able to win in. Badminton is the obvious choice, of course, but what about wrestling, judo, weightlifting and gymnastics? Speaking to the BBC, Professor David Forrest, a sports economist at the University of Salford, identified these four sports as the ones that are the best sports for developing nations.
His analysis appears to be borne out in 2012: Our nearest neighbours have won medals in weightlifting (one silver and one gold for Indonesia, plus one silver for Thailand), whilst Singapore have two bronzes in ping-pong. Brazil, meanwhile, has just won its first-ever gold in gymnastics.
Then there is the question of money. The British invested about £235 million (RM1.2 billion) for the 2008 Olympics and came home with 47 medals. For 2012, that figure has been increased by about £165 million, and as of Day 11, the team have 48 medals. That money has been raised chiefly through the UK’s National Lottery and via taxes, and partly through corporate sponsorship.
Some of you may question the worth of spending so much money on sport, when that money could perhaps be better spent on things like education or health. Here are reasons why it is worth investing in sport: an outpouring of support for one man from people of all races and religions; a business offering an incentive to all Malaysians because of one man; in short, one man uniting our entire nation by playing well at the Olympics.
Isn’t national unity ― even for a fleeting moment ― reason enough?
Majulah sukan untuk negara!
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.