Lessons we can learn from our forgotten sports heroes

Last week’s column on some of Malaysia’s great badminton players got me thinking about other wonderfully talented sportsmen of the past who have been forgotten or who may not be known to younger Malaysians.

There is so much to learn from those greats about what true grit is, what sacrifice means, what passion entails.

I think today’s sportsmen and officials can learn much from the attitudes and spirit of the former greats.

And so can the ordinary Malaysian.

I hear from so many people that sportsmen today are gifted because they have all the facilities and resources needed to hone their talents, and they get generous rewards for winning. I also hear that some have been spoiled by these rewards.

In the past, there was hardly any reward from the government, whether state or federal. In fact, many athletes had to bear the costs of involvement in any sport; it was the price they had to pay for their passion.

Today, sometimes one sees the spectacle of state and federal governments tumbling over each other to reward some sportsman or other. Some sports lovers tell me that today’s sportsmen have to thank the Sidek brothers – Misbun, Razif, Jailani and Rashid – for this. Although a few sportsmen had been rewarded in the past, the feats of the badminton brothers triggered a rush by those in authority to reward them. And the trend has continued.

I’d like to recount a few stories about past sports heroes that I have heard of or read about.

I had mentioned in last week’s column how the legendary Wong Peng Soon had to ask family and friends for money to travel overseas to participate in badminton competitions. There was no benevolent government to look to the needs of the early sports heroes; no government-linked company or firm trying to burnish their corporate social responsibility branding by aiding our early sportsmen.

I have read of another badminton great, Tan Aik Huang, saying that when he went for the All England Championships in 1965, the Badminton Association of Malaysia had no money and could not fund him.

Tan, who won the All England in 1966 and was on many Thomas Cup teams, said: “I left with no funds or supplies from BAM, except for four Fred Perry sports shirts with the Malaysian crest sewn on the front of each shirt.” Fortunately, Malaysians staying or studying in England came forward to take care of his needs there.

The following year, Tan and fellow players went to England again. Tan was quoted as saying: “During the 1966 All England the five of us – (Ng) Boon Bee, (Tan) Yee Khan, Billie Ng, (Yew) Cheng Hoe and myself – were so short of funds that we could not afford to rent two double rooms in a cheap hotel. We finally found one hotel which was willing to cram all five of us in a room that was just slightly bigger than a double room.”

Can you imagine that happening today?

Another badminton star who showed immense passion for badminton was James Selvaraj who represented Malaysia in three Thomas Cup outings and coached the national team from 1982 to 1985.

Selvaraj postponed his honeymoon, and left his wife two days after their wedding, to participate in the Thomas Cup qualifiers in New Zealand in July 1981.

Another sportsman who put the call of the nation above his wedding was the national football striker of the 1960s and early 1970s, the incomparable N Thanabalan. The 1968 Merdeka Cup Tournament final was held on the eve of his wedding but instead of making preparations, he was on the field scoring eight goals in six matches, including a goal against the powerful Burmese to help Malaysia lift the cup.

Thanabalan had his eye on the goal, literally and figuratively. His focus never wavered.

Unfortunately, he never got rewarded. But then, I suppose that for people like Thanabalan representing the nation was reward enough.

Can we expect to see such an attitude among sportsmen today?

In the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games in Singapore, Nashatar Singh, the reigning Asian and Malaysian javelin champion, was a definite gold prospect.

A few days before the athletics meet started, Nashatar received a phone call from home saying his infant son had been admitted to the hospital. Nashatar was told his son’s condition was critical. He was given permission to fly home; but once doctors told him his son would recover, Nashatar flew back to Singapore just before his event began and won a gold for Malaysia.

This does not just reflect passion but also an ability to handle distress and remain calm enough to perform well. How many of today’s sportsmen, how many of us, have this fine ability to retain balance under stress?

Talking about balance, I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr Mani Jegathesan, the “Flying Doctor”. This athlete brought glory to the nation by winning gold medals, and making it to the semifinals of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. While setting the tracks on fire with his athletic prowess, he also studied medicine and graduated as a doctor.

During his heyday, he was regarded as the fasted man in Asia. If you want to talk about commitment, about time management, about beating the odds, there may be no better person than this former director of the Institute of Medical Research.

Former national athlete M Rajamani, known as the Queen of the Tracks in the 1960s, has recounted how she and others had no proper running shoes or clothes to train with, and no money to buy them.

Malaysia’s first female Olympian once told the media she had to use the same pair of black rubber shoes for seven years, including for the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Her father had taken her to a cobbler to make the shoes.

Now that is commitment; that is perseverance.

Some sportsmen not only perform, they also encourage others to get into sports and train to bring glory to the nation. One such person was walker K Thirumal, the “Father of Walking” and the man who made the sport of walking popular. He was poor, yet he found a way to get a little money here and there to encourage race walking.

Thirumal, who won gold for Malaysia in several international walk events, including the SEAP Games, would organise his own race walks at the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens for small groups of people and give them simple prizes which he solicited from sponsors. Those who took part in these races included Khoo Chong Beng and V Subramaniam, both of whom later brought glory to Malaysia.

It was reported that he actually raised money on his own in 1991 to send two athletes for training in China after the National Sports Council and the Malaysian Amateur Athletics Union apparently turned down his request for funding for the duo.

In this, he not only outdid the officials appointed or elected to boost sports in the country, he also taught us to share and help others.

Do today’s athletes have such passion? Or the deep desire to help others? And what about today’s officials? Are they as committed as the officials of the earlier decades or are they in sports to enjoy the many perks that come with position today?

I’m sure there are many other stories about the pains and sacrifices of other sportsmen and officials over the years. I salute them all.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT