Children were once free to play games and sports of their choice and sometimes created by them.
There were no restrictions on who can play. Any open space was converted to a playground. Rules were made up on the go. There were no referees. No special gears or equipment.
There were plenty of arguments and spats. It was usually resolved with plenty of fuss but without any malice.
Over the last two decades or so, children are no longer carefree in sports. They are now forced into adult-controlled games.
In this world of adult-controlled games, winning is everything.
The joy of sports has now been replaced by the utter need to win. From the first day you pick up your bat or ball or your sports shoes, you are told directly or indirectly that “winning is everything”.
Sports teach us many things, especially discipline, cooperation, camaraderie, physical, mental and social well-being.
But none of this is going to matter if we take the joy of out playing.
Sports culture cannot take place if we are preoccupied with winning and medals only.
At every level of sports, right from the junior leagues, our children are being pressured to play to win.
A recent study by George Washington University found that what children wanted most from sport was the chance to play and to try their best, guided by a coach who respects them.
Of the 81 reasons they gave for why sports were fun, “winning” came 48th, “playing in tournaments” 63rd and “travelling to new places to play” 73rd.
Sports like music must be cultivated naturally. Like Mozart and Beethoven in music, the true superstars in sports were those who first and foremost truly enjoyed the game themselves. The likes of Pele, Mohamed Ali, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Jordan and even Usain Bolt gave joy to others with their performances because they thoroughly enjoyed their sports.
The Germans in the past and to a great extend the Chinese now, greatly relied on social engineering to excel in sports. But there was no joy in it. Neither does anyone truly cherish their feats. Long gone and forgotten are their exploits.
Not many really remember the Ma’s Army, who stole the march in athletics in the 1990s with their regimented training.
Ma Junren picked teenagers from his home province of Liaoning, trained them to run marathons every day at high altitude, fed them exotic tonics of turtle’s blood and caterpillar fungus, imposed a military-style regime that outlawed long hair and boyfriends, and had 11 athletes’ appendices removed for “toxicological problems”.
At the August 1993 World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart his runners swept the middle- and long-distance medals, and in China’s National Games the following month they stunned the athletics world with new records.
In Malaysia, the emphasis in recent years, has been only on elite performance. So desperate has been our desire to win, we have neglected the development of sports at the basic level.
Excellence is important but it is being pursued at the cost of social sports participation at the grassroot level.
Even before our children get into school, the joy that they get in just running around, wrestling with their peers and kicking the ball around is gone.
Where children were supposed to enjoy sports, they are now armed in their Nikes, adidas, Yonex and other sporting brands marching towards the end of a rainbow.
If you are just an average or worse still not skilled, you are no longer welcomed on the field. Because Malaysians at all level only want “winners”.
Malaysia has earned the inglorious title of the region’s fattest nation, and the sixth most obese country in Asia. And much of this has to do on how the society has taken the joy out of sports.
If we do not have sports culture, we are not going to be winners. Stars like Lee Chong Wei, Nicol David and the late Mokhtar Dahari are anomalies in the system and are not true gauge of our sporting excellence.
If children are to be successful at a sport, the drive to specialize and succeed must be intrinsic, of their own choosing.