An Unsporting Nation
Category: Column By : Taufik Darusman Read : 139 Date : Wednesday, October 04, 2017 - 14:51:57

When Indonesia finished fifth in August’s 11-nation Southeast Asia (SEA) Games 2017 in Kuala Lumpur—behind Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore—President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo decided the nation faces a crisis of sorts. Stopping short from dismissing the minister of youth affairs and sports, he publicly vowed to overhaul the management of the nation’s sports. The decision could not have been timelier; the next day after he spoke, the national soccer team, playing on home ground, was held to a scoreless draw by, yes, Fiji in a friendly match.

Indonesia’s performance in Kuala Lumpur was the worst since the biannual Games was first held in 1977.  The 525-strong contingent aimed to get 55 gold medals but returned with only 38. Many athletes and their trainers were hardly surprised—pointing to poor training facilities and old equipment, and even late payment of government stipends.

As per usual, the blame game is already in full swing. For the record, several government-sponsored units oversee the nation’s sports, namely the Ministry and the National Committee on Sports (KONI), chaired by a retired two-star Army general, the Indonesian Olympic Committee (KOI) with millionaire businessman Eric Thohir at the helm, and the Satlak Prima, loosely defined as “a state-backed task force assigned to deal with athletes’ performance and needs,” and chaired by a four-star admiral, formerly the Indonesian navy’s chief of staff.

Inevitably, the SEA Games fiasco also provides an insight into the Indonesian psyche. None of the top people responsible for it offered to resign as is done in other countries. To be sure, the minister offered an apology, but he also fired staff members to make sure the public understands who actually is to blame. Jokowi has yet to outline his grand overhaul plan, said to be done by Vice President Jusuf Kalla and his team. Obviously, the president is overly concerned as Indonesia’s national prestige is at stake: it is set to host the Asian Games 2018, in August, in which top guns China, Japan, India and South Korea will be taking part. Kalla’s first order of the day is looking into the messy inter-ministerial bureaucracy that had made it impossible for athletes to get proper training and equipment. While analysts agree that athletes’ primary needs are paramount, they also called on the government to apply scientific methods and engage nutritionists to boost their performance.

But no matter how comprehensive the plan may be, the president will soon realize that the nation does not exactly have abundant talents in sports to begin with. Clearly, there is no correlation between the country’s strong enthusiasm for sports and the unbridled passion required for its individuals to become world-class athletes. Despite a huge population of over 250 million, we have only made a dent in world sports in the field of badminton. For decades a host of highly-paid foreign coaches have played musical chairs to form a formidable national soccer team but to no avail. A classic case of organization overkill (read: gross mismanagement) has conspired to make the nation’s sports in dire straits. The right diagnosis is key in deciding the course of action to deal with the malady. And it has taken the leader of the world’s fourth largest nation to do just that. 



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