Women's diving, one of Malaysia's premier sports, has been eliminated from the upcoming Malaysia Games

Dropping the women's diving events from the 2022 Games highlights a gaping hole in Malaysia's sport development process.

In two weeks the 2022 edition of the Malaysia Games will get underway in Kuala Lumpur. SUKMA, as it is known in local lingo--a combination of SUKan (sport) and MAlaysia--is a multi-sport, state vs. state competition. The event focuses on young, developing athletes, some of whom will soon be able to represent the country internationally. Finding new athletes for national training programs is, indeed, one of the purposes of the SUKMA but one of the country's premier sports, women's diving, will not be represented in this year's edition. Not enough states entered the women's diving events thus, according to Games rules, the events cannot be contested. Other women's events--karate, weightlifting, and canoeing, along with men's boxing--were also axed. None could meet the entry requirement.

The loss of a rare competitive opportunity was recognized as detrimental to young athletes by Youth and Sports Minister Ahmad Faizal Azumu who

"instructed the NSC [National Sport Council] to cooperate with all national sports associations to organise more national meets to ensure all athletes, including those unable to take part in Sukma, have the opportunity to participate in a competitive environment." (Malaysiakini, 2022-8-18)

More competitions are a good idea but the loss of an opportunity to compete in an imminent, stable, and mature event in hope that another yet to be conceptualized and planned event will materialize is not encouraging. The bigger question is why were there not enough entries for women's diving?

Malaysia shines in diving with a World Champion, and Olympic, Commonwealth, and Asian Games medalists on its women's roster, so one would assume that it has a formidable foundational program supporting these performances. This is not the case. Malaysia relies on athletes in diving, as it does in all sports, who rise to elite levels in spite of a lack of organized opportunities to train and compete at the developmental stage. Athletes who make it to the national level do so in an almost serendipitous manner through private training, sporadic coaching at schools, or just plain luck. Somehow they acquire abilities that get noticed by national sport governing bodies (NGBs) and, if they're lucky, are placed on national teams or training squads.

Dropping the women's diving events from the 2022 Games highlights a gaping hole in Malaysia's sport development process. Games rules require that six of the 13 states enter athletes in an event to keep it on the schedule. When one of Malaysia's most successful sports fails to meet this minimal requirement it reveals the country's failure to build the bench, so to speak, assuring that when current stars leave the scene there are others ready to take their place.

For example, badminton is just recently finding its mojo again after long-time singles-ranked player Lee Chong Wei retired in 2019, and with Nicol David absent from the squash scene the sport has all but disappeared from the local radar. Less prominent examples exist in other sports as well. The common thread is that youth development doesn't seem to be a priority for Malaysian NGBs. Whether due to contentedness with the status quo or lack of expertise, either way it isn't getting done. But will anyone do anything about it? Or, more importantly, what can be done about it?

Where are the development programs?

Malaysia's government supports a top-notch high performance sport program, which provides national athletes with monthly stipends, national coaches, and a sport medicine/psychology program second to none. Facilities and expertise at the National Sports Institute are the envy of many other countries. But this icing is left without a cake, there is no strong youth sport culture nor a mature club system to support nationwide development of future national athletes.

Malaysia Swimming is taking heat for not having established diving programs in a sufficient number of states. These criticisms are valid and the suggestions below may help so that it never happens again. But this is not just a problem with Malaysia Swimming, it represents a complete failure across the board to address one of the most fundamental ideas of human development: High performance doesn't just happen. It has to be nurtured.

Imagine a country whose education system only focused on the university level with limited or no elementary or secondary programs, and taught the few students who were able, on their own, to rise to the level needed for successful matriculation. Not having a proper sport development system is just like that.

Here are some suggestions that could help Malaysia create a development environment :

  1. Recognize and affirm that NGBs are the responsible parties for creating and nurturing a developmental system for their respective sport(s). No other body--government, schools, Olympic Council, National Sports Council--is equipped to do this, nor should they be expected to. But NGBs have taken surprisingly little interest in creating such a system. Perhaps this is because the government has historically funded outcomes in the form of medals and podium finishes in international events rather than the actions that lead to winning them. These are good goals but rewarding NGBs for winning medals means that development will always take a back seat to other, more noticeable endeavors.
  2. Rethink how and why funding is distributed to NGBs by establishing austere and sensible criteria for what sports are eligible for government funding. You can't fund everything. Choose sports that Malaysians actually participate in. For example, the Malaysian government should not be funding winter sports like downhill skiing or figure skating, or boutique sports like sailing, equestrian, shooting, and other obscure or unknown sports. There is nothing wrong with these activities, it's just that youngsters are not now and never will be participating in them in numbers large enough to justify government expenditure. NGBs for these kinds of sports must figure out ways to support themselves.
  3. Fund development over outcome. This is the key; it will provide the impetus for NGBs to do what's necessary to develop their sport(s). Require NGBs to establish key performance indicators (KPIs) focused on development and tie the NGB's annual funding to these KPIs. Make sure KPIs are process oriented rather than outcome oriented. It is the process of development that is important. Process means programs, tasks, or strategies that are ongoing and sustainable. By establishing good processes for youth development NGBs will be providing a steady flow of talented youth into higher levels of training and performance. This echoes something that coaches stress to their young athletes: Follow the process and the outcome will take care of itself. NGBs should heed that advice.
  4. KPIs should be established by each NGB and approved, monitored, and audited in a completely transparent manner by the relevant funding body i.e. Olympic Council of Malaysia or the National Sports Council. And it must be clear to NGBs that development must be nationwide and not in some centralized location. This will assure that the current diving fiasco doesn't reoccur.
  5. Mean what you say: NGBs that fail to meet KPIs don't get funding. NGBs have had over 60 years to establish a development environment for their sports. They haven't. It's time for the funding authorities to shift focus and begin mandating what their funding is actually for. It's not for Malaysia's first Olympic gold, it's for the process that will eventually make it possible. Fund the process because you can’t fund the outcome in sport.

Using the above criteria will gradually produce a cadre of NGBs who 'get it' when it comes to sport development. Process is long-term but the reward to athletes, NGBs, and the country is worth it.

Why a state vs. state format?

The Malaysia Games are structured as a state vs. state competition and it is this format that caused women’s diving and a few other sports to be eliminated from the Games. While this kind of competitive format makes sense for team sports there is no logic supporting it for individual sports. It's easy to see why football or hockey would depend on a state competitive format--Sabah vs. Terengganu--but what value is there in organizing individual sports this way?

Individual sports should not need a minimum number of states to participate. It would be possible to have a successful diving tournament with athletes from only one state. Discussions about this probably touched on one state dominating the scoring or something like that and the minimum state requirement may have been adopted to address it. In doing so, however, organizers have lost sight of what the goal of the Malaysia Games should be: Allowing developing athletes a chance to gain competitive experience. Changing this rule should be the first thing organizers do after the current edition of the Games is completed.