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 Malaysia’s badminton team to the world title (The Thomas Cup) in 1995. More importantly, he led the bid for hosting the 1998 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 year.
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 are heading for dire straits even though it 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 superstars 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, 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 it 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.