Malaysia has produced remarkable and outstanding athletes using a 60-year-old triangle method
Grooming seemingly ordinary individuals to become world-class athletes is not for the faint-hearted, but the Education Ministry, working hand-in-hand with national sports bodies, has the eye to identify a diamond in the rough early on.
Utilising a 60-year-old triangle method of having a large pool of students sifted upwards as they excel, our national schools have produced athletes who have flown the Jalur Gemilang high and proud in foreign lands.
From this, five sports schools alone have produced more than 50 Olympians since the first one, Bukit Jalil Sports School, was opened in 1996.
This proves impressive for a baby nation of 32 million people, although still on the road to clinching its first Olympic gold medal since its involvement in the Games some seven years after achieving independence.
Education Ministry sports director Dr Mehander Singh told the New Sunday Times that churning out world-class athletes year after year was something people outrightly demanded, but they were clueless on the complexity of achieving it.
“Our pyramid system begins with the school population of roughly 5.2 million students, who compete at the most basic level, between classes and houses at their individual schools.
“As they go on, 800,000 of these student athletes manage to compete at district level, and subsequently 100,000 of them at state level.
“At the very top of the pyramid, at the national level, 12,000 to 14,000 student athletes in the country vie for a place as the nation’s best.”
This stable pyramid system ensures the best athletes start from the beginning, he added, identifying them early on and harnessing them to glory.
A prime example of this is Southeast Asia’s sprint king Khairul Hafiz Jantan, who rose from the ranks as an athlete at school level to international level.
The 19-year-old Melaka native ended Malaysia’s 14-year drought of a gold medal in the men’s 100m dash at the Kuala Lumpur Sea Games last year, clocking in 10.38 seconds.
Mehander said the country’s sports development had come a long way, paving the way for a cluster of today’s future athletes.
He also stressed that an element that would not be overlooked in the process of developing athletes was education, which was the reason sports schools primarily take academics very seriously.
“We try to find a balance between academics and sports. If their sports career does not pan out, they need something to fall back on.
“Their career track should be diversified and education should be for life.”
The ministry’s sports deputy director, Zainal Abas, said an athlete’s career was akin to high-jump; the athletes must have something to land on after they have reached their peak.
“While their sports career will not last until they are 50 or 60, their education lasts for a lifetime.
“This is why we prepare a platform for them in academics in addition to sports,” he said.
A typical day in the life of a sports school student, he elaborated, started as early as 6.30am, when they begin their two-hour training.
Their academic classes start from 9.30am and ends about noon. Three hours later, they start training again. They spend their nights studying and making up for those lost contact hours due to competitions.
“We want thinking athletes. If Brazil can have a medical doctor in its World Cup team, Dr Socrates, why should we deprive our own student athletes of education?” he said, adding that even during their international travels, student athletes had academic modules with them to ensure they were not left behind in their studies.
Zainal was adamant that the system used by the ministry in partnership with the National Sports Council, the Youth and Sports Ministry and other sports associations had borne fruit for the nation.
Not only has Bukit Jalil Sports School produced more than 50 Olympians, most of the medals Malaysia has won internationally have come from products of the nation’s sports schools.
“Looking forward, the parties involved, such as the Education Ministry, the Youth and Sports Ministry, the National Sports Council, the National Sports Institute, sports associations, parents and even the private sector must play their roles.
“To produce more champions, like Lee Chong Wei, Nicol David and Azizulhasni Awang, we must pool our resources, support and harness our student athletes until they stand on international podiums with the Jalur Gemilang raised and the Negaraku played.”
PANDALELA RINONG, national diver
“ The investment the government has made in our sports schools is reflected in the number of world-class athletes we have.
Sports schools are like a platform for young athletes to advance into an elite team and pursue their studies at the same time.
To have world-class athletes, we need a world-class mentality. This means, we need to excel not just physically, but also mentally. I believe a great athlete also needs to take education seriously.
The more students in sports schools, the more we can nurture and identify talent.
I managed to balance my sports training and academics, thanks to the flexibility of the school. I can be absent most of the time, but still get good results thanks to the modules given to me by my teachers. “