Monday, 2 November 2009

No passion, no excellence

He may sound liek an idealist, but National Sports Council (NSC) director-general Datuk Dr Ramlan Abdul Aziz, 46, is convinced that sports, if done right, will save the nation. Having taken over the helm just 10 months ago, the good doctor reveals to R. NADESWARAN and TERENCE FERNANDEZ his remedy for the ills fo Malaysian sports.

theSun: There seems to be confusion over the roles of the National Sports Council (NSC) and the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM). Could you enlighten us?

All over the world, countries which have a very strong Olympic committee will take care of every aspect of the athletes' preparation and management. There's no such thing as a national sports council. They have a sports ministry which takes care of sports overall.

I suppose we have come to a situation where the OCM needs to come up with the sort of money needed for a big-scale association or body. So, it is dependent on the government for support.

However, as it has given the money, the government feels it needs to know how the money is spent and managed, thus the establishment of the NSC in 1971.

So, we have come to an arrangement where the NSC will help the federations prepare the athletes they have selected and the OCM will organise the participation of national athletes. Along the way, there have been a few scrapes and a few flare-ups here and there... you know, more personality clashes... and my appointment here is to set up proper links with them.

Perhaps there have been too much politics, too little diplomacy Ð people emphasising differences rather than finding common ground. I don't think there are any difficulties that cannot be handled in a gentlemanly way and through the right forum.

NSC is represented in the OCM and OCM is represented on the NSC and we should be able to bring up any issues.

So this takes care of accountability?

I think we are going in the right direction, but perhaps OCM wants to see some accountability on our part. Let's say if we make an error, we should not be so thick-headed as to say "Oh! we are civil servants, we don't make mistakes".

We should say "I'm sorry, I'll do better next time".

For instance, there was confusion over deadlines for a progress report. They (OCM) were annoyed with us. There was no need for us to be bull-headed about it, so I apologised on behalf of the NSC.

It had a good effect because all they (OCM) wanted was some form of apology. This keeps us on our toes. Each time we make a mistake, we have to apologise and an apology is a painful thing, isn't it? But after a while, you feel glad and people understand you better.

We are glad. Can we talk about the (World Cup hockey qualifiers) debacle in China? NSC paid for 19 officials but those doing a post-mortem on why our team flunked are people who never went to China!

(Laughs) There's a supporting group called the SPT (Special Projects Team). Every sport has an SPT and each SPT has a leader.

The SPT leader has to give me a report. Each report has to be connected to the sports science group and how they engage the coach and how good was their interaction and cooperation. They have to provide a report to a panel. But yeah... it's a question, isn't it?

Yes, wouldn't the people who were in China be in a better position to tell us what went wrong?

Well, Murali Menon (National Sports Advisory Council head) was there...

What was he doing there?

He was there in his capacity as adviser to the deputy prime minister. He wanted to have a look-lah!

Look at what? You must be in some proper capacity, but if you are just going there to observe, then don't waste taxpayers' money! And the support group, is it necessary to have so many people?

I have to check if it was really 19. But let's look at the composition. Let's look at the food - food was an issue, so we sent two cooks and a nutritionist to monitor nutrition and calorie intake. The basic principle is that we must have people who are working with our athletes here in the country and not fair-weather friends.

There was a doctor but because it was a big tournament, we felt that it would be a strain for him, so we sent a physiotherapist. No bio-mechanist as he had no role to play, but there is a new technology called sports code, a technology from Australia being used by hockey, badminton and squash where footage is taken of a game and during half time or real time, the coach can view the footage to chart a counter-attack or identify the weakness of his player. This is mainly for a penalty corner (in hockey) so we had a guy handling this.

We also had a conditioning guy to help in physical training and warm-up, as well as recovery.

Also psychologist - this is where I can see grounds for you to make an issue. The psychologist that we found ourselves with... ahh... (whispers) found ourselves with... is a person who had been working with hockey before I came here.

To be honest with you, I was not really satisfied with his approach which is I will work with individual players and then I said: "Look, where is your team building, motivation, are you talking to the coach, are you helping him?"

All of these was not satisfactory.

So, there is one other psychologist who was working with the Under-21s before and he was very successful, very good... and he was English- speaking. The non-English-speaking ... no success whatsoever, no impact...

How do you employ someone who can't even communicate?

Itulah dia, Nades... (laughs). (Back to the earlier topic) In the beginning, I asked him to do squash. He coaches very well in individual sports. People like Nicol David, Beng Hee appreciate his approach.

You know, when you speak English you can get around and develop the rapport, especially for individual sports.

Problem is... that's why I said someone we found ourselves with...

Not somebody I had planned for but I take responsibility for this. At the end of the day, I felt it was not working and even though it was too late, I asked someone else to go (to China).

There have been this sudden influx of foreign "con-sultants". Aren't there any local talents? Why aren't we tapping the resources from within? We seem to be always running to Australia.

Fair comment. In 1998, there were more consultants than there are now...

That's because of the Commonwealth Games.

Right. There was a whole department of foreign consultants then, all related to sports science. Now we have a smattering of consultants here and we set this whole system according to disciplines which works very well. And all these guys are locals. There are five to eight sports science staff and they are all local.

The head of sports science is local, the two deputies are local; the head of sports medicine is local. There are three foreign consultants from Canada - sociology, sports science and physiology (which replaced bio-mechanics).

The staff under him are all Malaysians and they are benefitting from this. I hope you can see that.

Only this thing with the programme management ahh... in the beginning... It was a government to government thing... I wasn't involved but there was an application for us to get somebody of a certain description to manage a special programme of elite athletes, which I did not agree with. Somehow it does not fit in well, but ding dong ding dong, and here he is!

But what job description was given for Damian Kelly (head of the AsiaCom project)? What special expertise has he got?

Emm... how do I answer this? It's a good question... not being involved in the decision-making process, I can't frame a proper answer as to why he was selected, but working with him now, this is what I can comment on: I have certain expectations he has to meet and at the end of the project, I have to evaluate if they have been met. On a day-to-day basis he knows (my expectations) because certain things come before me and I say "Ok it's fine or it's not fine, what the hell were you thinking about..."

But, by and large, I am impressed with certain things, (despite) not knowing what was the original job description.

He came up with a detailed document on the 2006 Commonwealth Games targets and predicted we will win seven golds - which we did!

The only thing that fell apart was that Nicol did not win a gold medal (in squash as expected).

He also predicted that in lawn bowls we will win one gold medal, when in fact we won two.

His performancehas been undermined somewhat by his interactions with the Press and sports officials where he comes across as brash and lacking PR.

So, are we okay?

Sure. The issue is this: Nobody will make noise if you get a qualified guy. But the moment you are here without credentials and just to coordinate, people will start wondering. We were told that there was a sports ministers' conference in Sydney last August and (Aussie sports consultant) Harlem Pereira was part of the Malaysian delegation. How come you were not there?

Harlem and the minister's special officer, David Chan, were there. We had discussed this. Harlem put up a proposal for Indian Ocean sports and David was there to handle any (Press) conferences that involved the minister. But I do believe that I also should have been there, but... saya yang menurut perintah-lah!

Should politicians stay out of sports and leave people like you to run the show?

Politics should stay out of sports.

You see, perhaps some people at federation level, are sort of toeing the party line. Rather than doing what is sensible and logical, they are doing what is the wish of the VIP. With regards to NSC, the minister is chairman. The board of management sets the policy and I implement the policy.

But yours is a political appointment, right? You were hand-picked by the minister for this job although there were others waiting in the wings.

If I was hand-picked from the Ministry of Health, out of the blue, absolutely no connection at all with sports, then people have a point. But I was a full-time sports physician since 1990 and a director of the board, also the fact that she (Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Azalina Othman Said) wanted to see a different person in the hot seat and I think she was well within her rights and I don't think most people would question her decision. It is up to me to live up to her expectations.

Well, even some of the minister's critics have supported your appointment. But you have inherited 13 years of set ways (from his predecessor) ...

Ahh! This (interview) isn't going to be easy, is it? (Laughs).

Look, if she wanted a mere director-general, there are many paper-pushers out there. What she hopes for me to be is not a mere director-general but someone who makes changes.

One of the biggest mistakes we make is rewarding mediocre performances. Look at Sukma, they are giving money for every medal. At least you give RM3,000 for a gold medal and RM5,000 for breaking records ok-lah.

They are not picking up our cue. At the end of the day, everybody wants to be a benefactor and the government must find the right channel between the need to reward excellence and not to pamper people so much to the point they lose sight as to why they are here - for the love of the sport. Now they love the money!

What happened to the days when you ran for King and country?

Do you think the current batch of AsiaCom athletes deserve the money that they are getting?

If they are training full-time, they need to be given the money. Athletes used to work for banks. They play and travel all around the world, but when it comes to promotions, they don't get it. They are told "How do you expect to be promoted? You didn't work!"

We have some ideas where we have to maintain some parallel multi-level situation where people can move around... the problem is if someone is dropped from AsiaCom, do they go back to Gemilang?

Because of this safety net, athletes will think If I don't do well in AsiaCom, I can still go to Gemilang.

Because of this, athletes will not feel the need to push themselves.

That's why in AsiaCom, they won't have the safety net. If an athlete does well in his studies, he will be able to polish that sort of attitude required in sports excellence. It is not sports or studies, it's sports and studies; otherwise, we will breed a bunch of morons who don't use their brains.

Interesting that you raised this point. If you look at the rugby team, or hockey team, you will find doctors, lawyers and engineers, but you will never find them in the football team.

You know why? I remember really fantastic football players who go off to university and get lost in their career and the nation loses that talent.

This is a real paradox. You look at hockey, it is still an enthusiasts' game, run by mad people who love the game, not business people.

So, when you have the passion and commitment that people like these - doctors, lawyers, engineers - have in their life, you will do well.

Whereas in football, any bozo who can lift a foot can play, and this so-called popular game... its own popularity is its enemy.

What is happening to our universities? They used to have great sports teams. Is there anything the NSC can do about the rot?

I was in university, UKM, for six years and sports was zero as far as the medical faculty was concerned. Everyone was caught up in the paper chase. I wanted to have a good life. I wasn't good in sports, so I got married! (Laughs). I got married in second year, became a father in my fourth year. So there you go! When you are in university, you should carry on with your life, continue your interest. The university doesn't have the right faculties to allow for this, the students don't have the initiative to do this. If the students' union is not taken up by politics but more positive activities, then bagus, but no! Everyone wants to be a bloody politician because at the end of the day, they want to masuk Umno, masuk PAS.

During university I remember, I can see this polarisation going on, everyone was sharpening their skills to be politicians. Nobody wanted to do sports or social service.

All these affect racial harmony. So what can we do? Let's not talk about university, what about schools?

I tell you, if we get this right, sports will save the nation!

But, never mind schools, never mind universities. These are areas I can't control yet, but I'll tell you what I can do.

Until SPM, we are in schools and have good links with the Education Ministry but not in university.

We are trying to explore opportunities with Open University.

So, after SPM, you go to university with no clue what to do. No guidance, no counselling. You don't know how to connect studies and sports. They need to be equipped with some enhancement programme to cope with the double life, you know!

They need to know how to be Clark Kent and Superman Ð Clark Kent goes to university and Superman plays in the fieldlah.

If you don't go to university, what do you do? Maybe you are good at sports and (for instance) Sapura gives a contract for six months. After that what happens?

So, we give them skills. Teach them how to be plumbers, electricians, computer maintenance... we can tie up with the Youth and Sports Ministry. I think we should harness these skills so that we don't have someone who is just successful in sports but in life as well.

Instead of just being given opportunities, shouldn't the athletes take the opportunities that come along?

We will provide the opportunities but they have to seize the day!

One thing that we need to look at also is how our education system is working out in terms of generating all-rounders.

Last time also when I was in school, during seminars, I was the only one who speaks.

"Why?" I ask my friends. Oh sebab you pandai cakap, they say.

So I said: "OK, if we keep doing this, I will improve, but what about you?"

So they want to hide behind me. There are lots of people like this.

So, you prepare athletes physically and mentally. Of course, spiritually (also) good but sociological, everything is up in the air.

A day before tournament, you have the wife calling up and bugging them... they lose concentration...

But don't you isolate the athletes days before competition?

Those days can-lah, but nowadays got handphone!


Difficult-lah.... buy yes, the manager has to ensure all these issues are taken care of and the athletes are mentally OK.

But isn't that mollycoddling? Isn't there too much mollycoddling in our sports that contributes to poor performance?

Mollycoddling is when you hold their hands and they can't do anything on their own but this is just to make sure you plug the gap and it precludes any threats to their progress.

Mollycoddling is when you favour a certain player. He doesn't come for training, you say "Never mind".

What has been your biggest challenge since taking over the NSC nine months ago?

One of the things I wanted to do is to ensure this organisation remains relevant to the needs of the times and there are certain outstanding things that my predecessor has not managed to do. One is the reorganisation of the NSC. This is long overdue.

If you change the structure but people think and behave the same way, it is not going to work, so it needs a change in culture as well.

You are talking about changing 13 years of work culture?

Not 13 years, that's just under Datuk Mazlan. It goes way back...

... to the time it was a government department in Gurney Road?

Ya! It's simple. You want your athletes to be world class, shouldn't you be world class as well? You want NSC to be mediocre?

I only want to do what is sensible and logical; and everything must have evidence and proper documentation. When we fail, everyone wants to know why we fail, but when we succeed, nobody knows why we succeeded!

Did we succeed due to our good plans and preparations, or did we succeed in spite of our problems?

You are blind to it because everybody is too busy slapping each other on the back!

We have excellent facilities, but they are not accessible to the masses. Instead of simple things replicated nationwide, we have huge monuments that schools can't afford to rent.

Are you aware of the Kompleks Sukan Komuniti? The original plan was to have it in every constituency but under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, they have approved 50, in key places. It is a good number.

Then you have Sukma... the ministry is planning Sukan Daerah and Sukan Komuniti...

But the community spirit won't be there. The moment it is structured and you get the government involved, they want to give medals-lah, make pins and logos-lah... we should work with residents' associations and the communities directly. You give to Belia 4B, Umno, it becomes political, becomes polarised.

I see your point. If that's the case, perhaps we should emphasise on the community and ask what they want and ask them to manage it.

But you can forget the cities. All the playing fields have been taken up for development.

Clear the semak samun, put two goal posts and just let people play like in the old days. We just maintain the field.

There must be coordination among government agencies. Land must be set aside for recreational activities. This must be in perpetuity.

I agree. Otherwise, one day they will have a field, and the next day they won't.

Part of my job is to see how development impacts the community and we would like a positive impact. For cities, it is a big challenge, finding the space is an issue. You have to be a bit creative.

However, for impending projects, I'm sure the Housing Ministry can be convinced... local councils another one... MPPJ...

That is it! Children's playground also sapu.

You have the laws, we should not have this problem.

That is the problem. You can always de-gazette land. Everything is done by Exco, everything is sulit. Look at the golf course next to NSC, converted into residential. Futsal centres are fully booked and too expensive for the masses.

I agree. They always think in terms of commercial value, not the interest of the people. They should audit how many people in the neighbourhood and ensure the facilities are enough.

If tak cukup, the duty of the government to provide-lah!

R. Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez THE SUN

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