The Sun May Set at Last Over the Union

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA. This past week
on campus at the United States Sports Academy we had Tan Sri Dato’ Elyas
Omar, the former Lord Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, the magnificent capital city
of Malaysia, to receive an honorary doctorate during our 26th Annual Graduation
Celebration.

Dato’ Elyas served for more than a decade
as the Lord Mayor of Kuala Lumpur and was perceived to be the second most
powerful man in Malaysia next to the Prime Minister. He had a rather unlimited
budget during the heyday of Malaysia, when they were showing a national growth
of nearly 20% per year. He built the very beautiful city of Kuala Lumpur,
a mix between Asian and Western architecture, into a bustling capital city
with buildings that are the highest in Asia, and a fast transit system that
takes the people from one end of the city to the other, over the bustling
streets of bazaars. He maintained the beauty of the traditional British railway
stations, except this one features Islamic architecture, which is not what
one would see in Victoria station in London. The same is true with many of
the buildings including City Hall, the Parliament and the Selangor Sports
Club in the heart of the city.

Tan Sri Dato Elyas Omar is a great sport
enthusiast who built a sport complex equal to no other in the world. It is
capable of hosting a major international competition, including the Commonwealth
Games that will commence 10 September 1998. He not only built the sport complex
but, in collaboration with the United States Sports Academy, led their badminton
team to the world title (The Thomas Cup) in 1995. More importantly, he led
the bid for the Commonwealth Games which is a reflection of the British Empire
Games that was started in 1930. It was often written before the start of
World War II that the sun would never set on the Union Jack (the name for
the British flag) in the British Empire. This Empire virtually disintegrated
with the invasion of Asia by the Japanese Imperial Armies in the early 40’s.
However, the last of the great British Empire in the Far East came to a halt
with the transfer of ownership of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China
in July 1997.

The Commonwealth Games is often called
the Friendly Games because the early structure of the competition focused
on individual performances rather than team competitions. How can anyone
imagine there would be an international competition developed by the British
without football (soccer) or even cricket, as that was and has been the structure
of the Games until this Games being hosted in Malaysia.

Malaysia is the first Asian country (Third
World) that has hosted these competitions. Many people have been more than
concerned. From the beginning there has been an ill wind (ghost wind called
ungan in Malaysian) blowing hot and cold. It is made up of traditional British
games with players all dressed in white suit and tie, who “out snooker” one
another by bowling iron balls on a grass surface maintained to the quality
of a golf green one would find at Augusta, Georgia. If you wish, you can
take in a friendly game of squash and, of course, tennis, given the Wimbledon
tradition, as well as a wide variety of traditional British sports that one
would watch while enjoying afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches on the
veranda.

The general prediction from the Western
world is that the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia is heading for dire straits
even though they had an unlimited budget and the Director of Games (the former
Chief of Staff of the Army), who is the brother-in-law of Prime Minister
Dato’ Seri Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. Incidentally, he is as anti-American
as anyone can be, particularly since Malaysia has gone through an economic
nosedive, like all of Asia during the past year.

As always in Southeast Asia, whether it
be the current financial crisis or anything else, there are always confrontations
between the countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN). Alarm bells are going off on many fronts even though the Malaysians
are doing everything in their power to muffle the problems, from facilities
to the difficulties they are currently facing with Indonesian immigrant workers
who are being abused in Malaysia. This could well boil over into the world’s
hottest and stickiest capitals (where on a good day, one needs to change
shirts at least three times a day).

There have been some concerns about the
athletes who oftentimes end up on the low end of the totem pole in most
international competitions, particularly as it relates to the heat and the
very high and dangerous levels of smog in Malaysia – a result of the on-going
forest fires that have affected the region for most of this past
year.

The fires that continue to burn in Borneo
were set by the Indonesian leadership to clear the forest for agriculture.
The Australian and New Zealand doctors indicate that the athletes may have
to wear masks during the competitions. However, the Malaysians are promising
that the smog will not reappear. This is hard to imagine since the fires
are burning underground in Borneo and there is no way to put them out. I
cancelled my last trip a year ago to the SEA Games in Jakarta because of
the smog, but I will be going to Malaysia in the coming weeks as a credentialed
VIP to observe this competition.

The Games now includes two team sports,
rugby but not football and, of course, at long last the friendly game of
cricket. New Zealand, Australia, and the Fiji Islands are among the best
rugby nations in the world in which they rule as king of all sports. Cricket,
of course, is part of the normal fare throughout the Old Empire, just like
tea and crumpets.

We all hope that the prevailing winds
that blow in September will cool the temperature, but it is clear that the
super stars of the athletic world are more than likely the ones to be cooled
toward the Friendly Games where the cash prizes are not there, making these
Games something of an anachronism. Actually, the Friendly Games, founded
during the days of the British Empire, no longer fits the image and philosophy
or even the world sport schedules as it did in the days of the magnificent
rubber plantations of Malaysia. Today’s competitors do not want to run for
fun, like the old school bash that they had once a year. Simply, they want
cash.

Secondly, the Friendly Games does not
provide the global platform that sponsors seek, particularly now that it
is being held within weeks of the World Cup in Soccer when the television
budget has drained the sponsors. In fact, this Games will be held three weeks
after the European Championships and in the middle of the IAAF Grand Prix
Final in Moscow and the Track and Field World Cup in South Africa. The kicker
on this whole Games format is, while one understands top track athletes running
for money, it is shocking that the British are not sending either a cricket
or a rugby team to this competition due to a long and tiring
season.

The saving grace for the XVI Commonwealth
Games, which may lack the Superstar glamor, is that the Malaysians will no
question put on a superb spectacle. Despite the economic turmoil, this will
be the largest Commonwealth Games ever held, with more than 6,000 athletes
from 67 nations utilizing 26 venues in and around Kuala
Lumpur.

The Commonwealth Games is really run like
a small town theater production. There are those who would like to see the
event reshaped and stripped of its last vestiges of Colonialism to enter
the arena like the Olympic Games, with all the top level competitive sports
rather than adopting new programs like cricket. Meanwhile, there have been
subtle political changes. Rather than having the Queen of England open the
Games (as she has for the last 16), they will be opened by the King of Malaysia.
The Queen has been relegated to the closing ceremonies.

In 1998 the Games in Malaysia is only
the second time it has been held outside of the Mother Country and its dominions,
e.g., Canada and Australia. The next Games is scheduled to be back in the
UK in Manchester in 2002. It is clear that the alarm bells are going off
a second time as Manchester has indicated they will have to scale down the
Games unless the British government comes forth with a subsidy of nearly
40 million pounds, which is not likely to happen.

With the global sport picture becoming
so congested, it may be that the Commonwealth Games as the British Empire
knows and loves it has had its day in the sun with the Union Jack being hauled
down maybe for the last time. The sad question is, is there anyone who really
cares? Meanwhile Malaysians are undaunted by all these questions. They have
already put their bid in for the next Summer Olympic Games following the
Olympic motto — higher, further and faster. Good luck.