PETALING JAYA: In times of suspicion and disharmony, it is always heart-warming to recall the days when the different races that make up Malaysia could come together and form a sporting team of such harmony, skill, and power that they took on and beat what seemed to them like the whole world.
Back when Malaysia could accurately call itself ‘Truly Asia’.
There is a smile on Zaiton Othman’s face as she recalls her time as a young athlete representing Malaysia at international sports competitions in the 70s and 80s.
Affectionately known as the Heptathlon Queen due to her ability in the seven punishing track and field events, she set a record which stood unbeaten for nearly 40 years.
Zaiton said the fondest memories of her athletic career are of 1981, when she and her teammates took part in the Southeast Asian Games in Manila, Philippines.
“It was the best year ever. That was my peak and I can never forget that feeling. It was very fulfilling,” she told FMT.
That was the year Malaysia won 16 gold medals, finishing fourth overall. The team set new national and competition records in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays, where Malaysia came first.
Those games even saw a new Asian record in the 4×400 relay, set by Zaiton and her teammates: V Angamah, Saik Oik Cum and Mumtaz Jaafar.
To many Malaysians, they were the golden girls of track and field, the nation’s pride in athletics.
“We worked very hard,” said Zaiton. “We were so strong that we feared nobody. We knew that we were going to break the national and SEA Games records, but we never thought we could break the Asian record.”
But they did break it, although China went on to beat their record two weeks later.
Nevertheless, Angamah told FMT, the team was still proud of their hard-won achievements for their country.
“We never ran because we wanted to win money. Back then there were no cash incentives to win. We were running for our love of sports and our country.”
Now a retired schoolteacher, she points out that Malaysia, at that time, had a women’s athletic team like no other.
“It was a totally unique team because we all had our individual events. Zaiton had the heptathlon, Mumtaz had the 100m and 200m, Oik Cum had the 200m and 400m, and I had the 400m and 800m.
“We also had the two relays,” she said.
She won a gold and broke the Malaysian record for the 800m event that year.
Prior to the competition, the ladies had a three-month training stint in Perth, Western Australia. This involved being monitored by Australian coaches as the team ran up and down dunes, where the sand came up to their knees.
It also involved getting up extremely early in the morning and heading straight out for a run, which required a lot of discipline and determination, said Angamah.
Yet despite the tough training sessions far from home, they never lost motivation.
They just kept running together.
“We demanded trials all the time because we wanted to have only the best runners representing Malaysia,” said Zaiton. ”We were always best friends during training, but the worst of enemies during competitions because we had to compete against each other.”
She recalled tensions running high during the games, where other countries sought to prevent Malaysia from bagging gold medals.
In the 4×100 relay, the final runner for the Thai team accidentally took off too early and received the baton over the line, leading to her disqualification.
Meanwhile, Angamah ran the third leg to pass the baton to Oik Cum, who went on to win the race for the team, with the Philippines coming in second.
But arguments erupted soon after, with the Filipinos claiming Malaysia should also be disqualified as Zaiton had stepped on the lines.
“I didn’t run in the centre of the lane, true, but I never stepped on the lines,” said Zaiton.
“We said okay, let’s watch the video action replay. Sure enough, it was clean. We went on to break the record. It was a fantastic time.”
Following another gold in the 4×400, Angamah said the team felt like they were on top of the world.
“Once you cross the finish line, you’re so exhausted that you don’t feel like celebrating. But soon you realise oh, you’ve done it, you’ve broken the record! That satisfaction, that happiness within you, no money can buy.”
Almost four decades later Angamah said the team remain close friends.
“I feel that we reflected Malaysian reality by being a multiracial team. Oik Cum was Chinese, Zaiton was Malay, Mumtaz was Indian-Muslim and me, Indian. We were so united then that we will always be together.
“It was a beautiful moment in our lives,” she smiles.
It was also a beautiful moment in the history of this nation.
A moment when the only races that mattered were the ones to be won on the track.
A moment when Malaysia’s races worked together, as they always should, to take on, if not the world, at least our part of it, and successfully outrun it.