If Karim Ibrahim and SM Muthu were seated next to one another at a dinner, servers would be inclined to put away their sharpest cutlery.
No amount of public relations soft soap can disguise the fractious relationship between the once best friends who controlled the Malaysia Athletics Federation (MAF) from 2017-19.
Former MAF president Karim felt betrayed that Muthu, his deputy during the 2017-19 term, challenged him for the top post for a new term and won by three votes.
Since then they have behaved like two men who wouldn’t pass the baton to one another in the 4x100m relay.
It isn’t over by any means and they are now at the starting blocks for the MAF presidency in a sport long riven with internal disputes.
Their animosity has been the highlight in the lead-up to tomorrow’s election, with Karim doing all the talking and Muthu shrugging off media interviews.
While Karim, the current president of the Perak Athletics Association, is not contesting any positions at the MAF elections tomorrow, some see him as pulling the strings for Muthu’s two opponents.
Karim has dismissed his perceived role as puppet master, saying, “I have thrown my support behind Shahidan Kassim because Muthu has taken athletics downhill and he has to go”.
He said he was not a ringmaster lurking on the fringes of what many have described as a depressing parade reminiscent of campaigns past.
Apart from Shahidan, who is Malaysia Swimming president and former MAF chief, the third candidate vying for the top job is Karim’s daughter Nurhayati.
Is Nurhayati’s candidacy that of a stalking horse to pave the way for a straight fight between Shahidan and Muthu?
Many have asked: Can athletics not provide better leaders? Are they the only option to scrub MAF clean?
Shahidan, who is also federal territories minister, has emerged as the strong frontrunner to be handed the responsibility of resurrecting Malaysian athletics’ broken performance system.
But did he do well during his tenure as MAF president from 2008-2012? Will he be hands-on with athletics if he wins since he has to run the national swimming body and has ministerial and other political responsibilities as well?
The continuity of Muthu’s leadership has been marred by the disappointment of the government, several state affiliates and a number of senior athletes over the state of the sport in this country.
Reform, transparency and impartiality
MAF has been in serious trouble in recent times amid mediocre sporting performances, tight finances, governance chaos, as well as questionable officials and coaches at all levels.
Reform, transparency and impartiality have been supposedly debased and the general feeling is that the under-fire association couldn’t get any worse.
What is needed is changes in the whole system of authority, in the testy relationship between MAF and some state affiliates, as well as a board and communications revamp, and the implementation of principled decision-making.
That, however, may not happen considering the vested interests of those who feed off the sport and that familiar, discouraging stand that leaders know best.
The fact that the candidates for the presidency and the other positions in the MAF council are running without a manifesto does not boost public and sponsor trust.
Nor does it increase confidence that the next president will lead by example in enacting serious reforms.
It has been a campaign short on rebuilding confidence, bringing sponsors and the public back on board, and long on the sort of vote trading, politicking, promises and dirty tricks.
The basics, including a rejuvenation of the sport at the grassroots level, are not being done well. The emphasis remains on the chase for medals.
There has been no support for running clubs and volunteer-run parkrun movements that lay the foundation for potential champions.
These two groups lack infrastructure to train their athletes, with most of them forced to use bumpy grounds for training purposes while the government-built track and field courses are exclusive to sports schools.
You wouldn’t bet on MAF clamouring for infrastructure when they themselves do not have a base to call home despite having been formed in 1906.
MAF has also failed to organise good events like inter-club relays and cross-country races that, in the past, produced middle- and long-distance runners.
Will we hear from the new MAF chief that Malaysia will have a representative in every discipline at all senior international events?
Will we hear how MAF intends to make broadcast and media, one of the most-challenging areas for all sports, equal partners?
Many cannot help but feel queasy about the future of Malaysian athletics because they don’t see anything moving, anything changing.
We need a different MAF. One that is more democratic and more respected. One that does more for those who speak out, the sponsors who walked away, and the many others who made their revulsion plain.
Athletes are naturally confident people, so if you can rebuild trust they’ll probably do the rest themselves.
Tomorrow’s MAF elections is a significant opportunity to ensure only those who have the interest of athletics at heart will serve the sport.
Delegates from the 12 state affiliates, minus deregistered Sabah and Selangor, at the MAF annual general meeting need to show some guts and direct non-performers to the door.
Malaysian track and field will not mourn their exit.
Nurhayati Karim, Shahidan Kassim (centre) and SM Muthu are in the fray for the top athletics job.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.