Reward Pandelela now – before the politicians forget her

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By D Raj

THERE are four things that do not belong in sports: violent losers, match-fixers, drug cheats – and politicians.

That fourth is often the biggest problem. The violent, sore losers, match-fixers and drug cheats can be caught and banned but politicians just will not go away.

Worse, they are often the ones who put themselves in charge, especially in Malaysia, with their own self-serving agenda.

This, actually, is one of the main reasons that all Malaysian sports are struggling.

When any sportsman wins, the politicians will be the first of the hangers-on to bask in reflected glory, spending government money on the winner and pretending as if it is their own generosity.

But suffer a defeat once, and they will disappear, leaving the athlete to weep alone, or on the shoulders of fellow sportsmen.

We have just seen a bunch of politicians deciding that people should not be allowed to exercise outdoors. No walking, jogging or cycling. Even the deputy sports minister, a budding politician, agreed.

It had to take saner heads to cry foul before those rules were sent to where they belong, in the dustheap.

And then came the big one.

Pandelela Rinong had delivered Malaysia’s only – and first ever – gold in the diving World Cup in Tokyo, and the adulation, as always, hit the roof.

There were those who felt she deserved a datukship.

After all, at a time when the country was reeling from one bout of bad news to another, here was a girl – no, woman – who had achieved something never done before.

But a politician had to step in, and put his foot into his mouth. Sarawak sports minister Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah decided it was wrong.

He felt that at 28, she was too young, too immature. And that she would be “spoilt’ if given a Datukship.

“Can you imag­ine some­one in their 20s hav­ing a Datuk­ship? It will be very dif­fi­cult for her to in­ter­act nor­mally out­side,” he has been quoted as saying.

Nicol & Chong Wei – Picture from MStar

As state sports minister, I am sure he would have heard of Lee Chong Wei and Nicol David, one a former world number one and the other a former world champion.

Chong Wei became a Datuk when he was 26 and Nicol was conferred the title one month short of her 25th birthday. Pandelela is 28.

Neither Chong Wei nor Nicol have had any problem interacting with the world. They remain the same old friends to many who know them.

Meanwhile, there are many unworthy Datuks and Datuk Seris out there, who are even younger than Pandelela. A certain Nicky Liow immediately comes to mind.

He was 27 when he was made a Datuk Seri. Two years later, he is a fugitive.

So, is Pandelela mature enough to warrant a datukship? And has she earned it?

While I have always been against the idea of datukships or grand rewards for sportsmen after one-off achievements or success at mediocre levels, I daresay Pandelela is a different kettle of fish.

She has done a lot for the country, having featured in three Olympics.

She won a bronze in London – the country’s first non-badminton medal – and a silver in Rio de Janeiro. She could well deliver that elusive gold in Tokyo in her fourth outing.

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She has an Asian Games gold medal, a Commonwealth Games gold medal and a host of SEA Games medals. And she was important enough to be the country’s flag-bearer in the London Olympics.

She certainly is mature. She has been fighting for women’s rights, dealing with a scandal that once hit the national diving team, which even involved a row with a coach and some slipper-swinging that led to her being called a diva.

It’s no wonder that she was quick to dive into the case of Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who had complained about a teacher who made jokes about rape.

Let’s get one thing straight. I am not advocating a datukship here for Pandelela. According to reports from Sarawak, she herself is not interested in such rewards.

The real reward she seeks is the Olympic gold medal. That’s maturity for you.

My problem, as I said, is about politicians getting involved. I am told Abdul Karim is a nice enough guy. But now is hardly the time to be a wet blanket. After her feat, it is a time to be optimistic, to encourage and motivate.

To say that she is too young and thus could be “spoilt” is mindless. Recognition is important.

Too many of our sportsmen achieved great things but grew old as bitter men because they were not recognised.

Consider the fact that the members of the national football teams that qualified for the Olympics have been overlooked for datukships until the last few years.

Many had watched in anger as others far less qualified or worse, criminals, were made Datuks and revered.

Even Cheah Soon Kit and Rashid Sidek, both of whom helped win the Thomas Cup in 1992 – the first win in 25 years and the last since – were made Datuks only this year.

Foo Kok Keong (The Star)

And the star of that amazing final, Foo Kok Keong, is still waiting. As is swimmer Nurul Huda Abdullah, the winner of a record 22 SEA Games golds, and two silvers and two bronzes from the Asian Games.

She was good enough to be the deputy chef-de-mission to the last SEA Games but not good enough for a datukship.

Shouldn’t they all have been given this recognition earlier?

Come to think of it, maybe Pandelela deserves it now. Before the politicians forget her.

This article first appeared in Free Malaysia Today