Good Show… But It Could Have Been Better!
By Amiril Muttaqien Meketar
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 18 (Bernama) -- The 2023 sports season is about to draw to a close and while some of our national sportsmen and sportswomen must be looking back knowing that they had a reasonably good year, others will be thinking they could, and should, have done better.
One of the biggest disappointments must be the national contingent producing the worst-ever performance in the history of the SEA Games by failing to meet the 40-gold medal target at the 2023 edition in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in May.
Malaysia could only return home with 34 golds, 45 silvers and 97 bronzes for the most dismal end to the biennial Games since their inception in 1959.
The country’s sporting image at the biggest Southeast Asian multi-sports Games was further marred when the Malaysian contingent could only finish seventh in the medal standings behind the likes of Singapore, the Philippines and Cambodia.
Following the lacklustre performance at the 2023 SEA Games, the powers that be decided, for the first time in decades, not to announce the specific medal target for the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games in China, in September.
The “safe” approach - not stating the specific number of gold medals targeted - clearly had its desired effect as it managed to reduce the pressure on the athletes who went on to bag six golds, eight silvers and 18 bronzes or an overall total of 32 medals to exceed the 27-medal target set before the Hangzhou Asiad.
Hangzhou also witnessed the success of several athletes, among them being woman squash player S. Sivasangari who bagged two gold medals in the team and individual events and Qabil Ambak Muhamad Fathil, who created history by becoming the first Malaysian to win an equestrian gold in the individual dressage event.
Besides the golden glitter, the national contingent also heaved a huge sigh of relief when the athletics camp managed to restore some pride by getting on the podium for the first time since the 2006 edition in Doha, Qatar.
The two national track athletes based in the United States - Muhammad Azeem Mohd Fahmi and Shereen Samson Vallabouy - stole the show by contributing a bronze each in the men’s 100-metre (m) and women’s 400m events. Shereen even helped the women’s 4x100m quartet to the bronze medal.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t that great a show for the country’s second most popular sport - badminton - in the Sudirman Cup in Suzhou, China in May as the national shuttlers could only retain the bronze medal.
Even the country’s top men’s doubles pair of Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik had what can only be described as an “underwhelming” season.
The pair not only failed to defend the world title they won last year, but they also endured a nightmarish time in the season-ending Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour Finals in Hangzhou, China when they could not even get past the group stage.
The only good thing about them is that they still performed consistently to reach six semi-finals and end a six-year wait by winning their maiden World Tour title - the Denmark Open - in October.
National mixed doubles pair Chen Tang Jie-Toh Ee Wei, who were the only other Malaysian representatives at the BWF World Tour Finals, also could not lift the gloom in badminton when they too failed to get past the group stage.
Men’s singles shuttler Lee Zii Jia’s form, meanwhile, had more lows than highs as he won just one title - the Arctic Open - and suffered 15 early exits, including eight in the first round, out of the 22 individual tournaments he competed in throughout the year.
The men’s singles professional shuttler also attracted controversy when he decided not to join the Road to Gold programme, which is a government initiative to make Malaysia’s dream of winning the first Olympic gold medal come true.
There was not much cheer from track cycling ace Datuk Azizulhasni Awang, either. After failing to compete in the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games following an open-heart surgery, he was forced to miss the 2022 Hangzhou Asiad at the last minute when he was involved in an accident while training at the National Velodrome in Nilai.
Malaysia did, however, strike it right in bowling when national elite Kegler Natasha Mohamed Roslan rocked the global stage by blazing the alley to clinch the women’s singles gold medal at the World Bowling Championships in Kuwait in October, thus ending the country’s 12-year wait for glory after Jacqueline Sijore’s heroics at the 2011 edition in Hong Kong.
The lawn bowls squad proved to be just as stunning when the combination of Aleena Ahmad Nawawi-Nur Ain Nabilah Tarmizi created a sensation by ending a 15-year gold drought by emerging triumphant in the World Lawn Bowls Championships in Gold Coast, Australia in September.
There was also more doom and gloom in hockey. They started the year on a sour note by ending their World Cup campaign in 13th place after edging Japan 3-2 in Rourkela, India.
The Speedy Tigers continued to be plagued by dismal form as they failed to win the targeted gold medal at the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games, where they could only finish sixth after being trounced 5-2 by Pakistan in October, thus missing out on an automatic spot in next year’s Paris Olympics.
As for the junior hockey squad, known as the Young Tigers, they too were a letdown, failing to capitalise on home ground advantage in the Men’s Hockey Junior World Cup to finish in 12th spot when they lost 4-3 to New Zealand on penalties after both teams were tied 2-2 in regulation time.
While most of our able-bodied athletes under-performed, let’s sing the praises of our para athletes as the national contingent rose to the occasion – as always – to capture 50 golds, 38 silvers and 28 bronzes to exceed the 33-51-58 medal target at the ASEAN Para Games in Phnom Penh.
This group of extraordinary athletes were not done yet, though, as they went on to scale greater heights in the Hangzhou Asian Para Games to again surpass the 35-medal target set by the Paralympic Council of Malaysia (PCM), bringing home seven golds, 15 silvers and 17 bronzes for a total haul of 39 medals.
As for the achievements of individual para athletes, powerlifting ace Bonnie Bunyau Gustin deserves special praise for being the most successful of the lot this year.
He stood head and shoulders above the rest when he smashed his world record en route to winning the men’s up to 72-kilogramme (kg) category at the World Para Powerlifting Championships in Dubai by lifting 231kg to erase his previous mark of 230kg set at the World Para Powerlifting Championships in Fazza, Dubai in June 2021.
With less than a year to go before the start of the 2024 Paris Olympics, local sports fans must be wondering who among the nation’s best would be able to bag the country’s first Olympic gold medal.
It is also hoped that the extraordinary bunch of para athletes will deliver the goods again at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.