Forgotten legacy of our past sports heroes

In this day and age we lavish our sportsmen and women, especially the younger generation, with gifts and other rewards if they excel in their game of choice. 

So I was not surprised when some of the “pampered” athletes recently demanded better rewards for their achievements in the sporting arena.

There was a time when a sportsman competed for the state or country and where monetary rewards was far from mind.

In 1993 the Sportswriters Association of Sarawak produced a publication called ‘Sarawak, the Sports Powerhouse’ the first of its kind in Malaysia, to remember the great Sarawakian sportsmen.

Spear-headed by the late Datuk Taha Ariffin we went about handpicking the veterans worthy of mention.

Going back in time we remembered the likes of Sarawak’s first Olympian Kuda Ditta@Bala Ditta, Commonwealth Games athletes such as Joseph Lee, Salleh Wahab and Latif Olen and the state’s top pole vaulter Albert Blassan.

We also highlighted the fact that the greatest Sarawak badminton player was Ong Poh Lim of Thomas Cup and All-England fame.

In fact during my time when I was Sarawak’s top student athlete competing in the Malaysian Schools Championship in Penang – my javelin 49m at St Thomas’ School has still not been broken after 50 years – we placed pride and honour higher than anything.

I spoke to one of the first Iban ‘Elvis Presleys’ of Sarawak, Albert Blassan, who held the state’s pole vault record for many years, and he agreed that winning honour for the school or state was of paramount importance.

Interestingly, even after the former Sarawak prisons officer was preparing to retire it was his department which recommended that he receive the coveted Ahli Bintang Sarawak (ABS) and not the Sarawak Amateur Athletics Association (SAAA).

Even today I do not see sports associations recommending awards for their outstanding sportsmen. Instead, in their futile search for worthy recipients only the civil servants get rewarded.

Sadly, Malaysia is one of the few places in the world where they offer money to amateurs to motivate them to become champions or to win tournaments. No wonder, sometimes a soccer player is motivated to “cheat” and let in a goal.

I wonder how much we are offering the Harimau Malaya players to beat Thailand in the Suzuki Cup semi-final? But I doubt the ringgit sign will be motivation enough to win if they don’t have the commitment and dedication!

On the question of sports rewards, I think Sarawak should lead the way and offer our champion athletes ‘Sports Awards’ instead of following in the footsteps of the associations in Peninsular Malaysia who started the rot by paying ‘millions’ to champions.

If our sportsmen are professionals and paid to win, one could understand it. But many are amateurs!

As to the State Awards suggestion, Sarawak should introduce a ‘Special Sports category’ award to be given to sportsmen – separate from what is presented to dignitaries, politicians, social-oriented association or bodies – as recognition for their achievements.

This special category should be fashioned along the lines of merit – grading the sportspeople to ensure the ‘International’, ‘National’, ‘International Junior’ (below 21) are separate entities.

A special ‘Handicap and Disabled’ section should also be introduced which is above and beyond their special award.

I remember during my rugby years the badge of honour was bruised ribs, a couple of stitches on the head after a bruising win. That was the cherished prize of a veteran sportsman. 

In 2013 I was awarded the Pingat Terpuji Jubilee Mas for my contributions towards promoting Sarawak through writing. Two sportsmen received the same award with me were the flying Dayak Watson Nyambek, Asian bodybuilding veteran Bujang Taha and SEA boxing gold medallist Sapok Biki. 

Even as we prepare to celebrate the Sarawak Governor’s birthday in 2019, can we turn the clock back and give overdue posthumous awards to the sports pioneers we have forgotten?

The special sports awards could be fashioned in their appropriate categories, for example ‘Pingat Wira Sukan Sarawak – Emas’ for Champions etc.

Off-hand, I think posthumous awards should go to our sports heroes such as Bala Ditta, Saloman Ismanto, Balang Lasung and William Yeo to name a few as well as outstanding sports officials such as the late Datuk Taha Ariffin, Chia Bok Gee, Y Y Lee and Y John, to name a few.

I can list out at least 200 veterans who have sacrificed their time, money and effort coaching, training and guiding our youngsters for love of Sarawak.

 If we can remember them, I think it will be a great sporting gesture!