In World of Sports, Myanmar Left Holding the Wooden Spoon
By The Irrawaddy 15 September 2018
Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss Myanmar’s decline in the world of sports. I’m Kyaw Kha, the chief reporter of The Irrawaddy Burmese edition. I’m joined by veteran journalist Ko Chit Win Maung and Myanmar national sepak takraw gold medalist Ko Zaw Latt.
Myanmar only managed to win two bronze medals at the 2018 Asian Games held recently in Indonesia. This indicates how bad the state of Myanmar sports has become. Myanmar tied for 35th with Afghanistan out of 37 countries on the medal table. U Chit Win Maung, what caused this dramatic decline in Myanmar’s sporting achievement?
Chit Win Maung: We only won two bronzes at the Asian Games in Indonesia—the least we’ve won since the Asian Games in 1994. A total of 45 countries took part in the games, and 37 countries won medals. Myanmar tied with Afghanistan for 35th place in the medal table, followed by Syria. So, it was the worst medal tally ever for Myanmar. Above us in the medal table was Laos, which clinched two silvers, and Cambodia, which took home two golds. They were higher in the ranking than us. Myanmar ranked lowest in the medal tally among ASEAN countries. As Ko Zaw Latt [who won a gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games] knows, the previous Asian Games was held in Incheon, Korea. That time, we won two golds. So, the number has declined. We have won gold medals in the past, but not now. It is a long story to explain the causes of this decline. I don’t want to discuss it. For the time being, it would be better for Ko Zaw Latt to discuss the situation.
KK: There is a slogan in our country: “Myanmar Sports—the World to Conquer.” But even at the Asian Games, Myanmar only won two bronzes. So, it is quite unrealistic to hope that Myanmar sports will conquer the world. We should first improve our ranking among the regional countries in Southeast Asia. What changes do you think are needed to accomplish this?
Zaw Latt: Usually, a ceremony to hand the victory banner [national flag] to members of the sporting delegation is held before they leave for a sporting event. Every country does it. But this year, the ceremony was not held. At such ceremonies in the past, most of the concerned [government] officials—many of them may still hold their positions today—would say that Asian Games are like “friendlies” and are only meant for us to gain experience. It seems that most of them only want us to achieve a good ranking in ASEAN, and that is enough. They would say this at three out of every five flag handover ceremonies. This is the wrong attitude. If that is true, why do we need the slogan “Myanmar Sports—the World to Conquer”? If we are to conquer, we have to first succeed at the Asian Games and the Olympics. If they think the Asian Games are only meant for us to gain experience, they have the wrong attitude from the very beginning. There is a lot to be done. Athletes for their part have to work harder. And concerned sports federations and the government also have a part to play. I’ve always pointed out this lack of government support, so the government is angry at me. Speaking of financial support [from the government], things are different now than in the past in our country [regarding consumer prices]. Today, if there are five members in a family, four have to work to be able to live a decent life. In the past, one breadwinner was enough to support the whole family. You could devote yourself to sports. But the situation is different now. I had to support my family even while I was still struggling as a player. In our country, there are few athletes who can dedicate themselves to sports without worrying about money. Even if athletes have a certain level of skill, without proper support it is difficult to turn out a younger generation of athletes. Again, we were told before leaving for sporting events—the SEA Games, for example—that we would get this or that amount as a financial reward if we won gold, but I don’t know where those words went after we won the medals. The Asian Games is a high-level sporting event for this country. We won medals at the Asian Games. I personally won medals in 2010 and 2014. And the award I got was less than US$500. I heard the Indonesian President said that he would award a minimum of US$100,000 to every gold medalist in his country at the 2018 Asian Games. So, you can imagine the difference. You might think I only talk about money. I have to— not for myself, but for the younger generation. If we are honored, this will encourage the younger generation. I say this not because I didn’t get any financial reward. I say this because it is necessary. Our sports federation did present us with financial rewards. But the government should also honor the medalists. It seems to me that the government doesn’t care about the Asian Games.
KK: It is quite dispiriting. What can we do to correct this?
CWM: Before talking about what can be done, I’d like to add to what Ko Zaw Latt has said. We have continuously covered Myanmar sports and we therefore understand the difficulties facing sports federations. Gold medals are a source of pride for the country. Ko Zaw Latt said he won gold medals in the past but received little support from the government, and that gold medalists were awarded US$100,000 in Indonesia. There must be incentives for athletes. Only then will they try harder. Ko Zaw Latt won medals for Myanmar in sepak takraw. In fact, there is a shortage of younger athletes who can succeed their seniors. It has been ages since a Myanmar athlete won a gold medal in a track and field event. Besides that, Myanmar athletes used to win gold in swimming and other events. In those fields, younger athletes were not groomed to build on the achievements of their seniors. To draw a conclusion from this, the rewards are small because our country is poor and can’t provide for its athletes like other countries do. Talking of government measures to promote Myanmar sports, the U Thein Sein government handed over the sports federations to businesspeople. It assigned leading businesspeople to lead each sport federation, like sepak takraw, rowing and so on, thinking that they could support the athletes. But today we are in a different era and their thinking is different. In the past, they were given business opportunities in exchange [for playing such roles]. Some have resigned from the chairmanship of the sport federations. So, there are negative consequences. And the Sports Ministry has become the Health and Sports Ministry [under the new government]. So, there might be some limitations on the minister’s ability to handle both alone. And taking a look at the budget allocation, the combined total for the two ministries is small. I want the government to know that sports embody the dignity of a nation. So, in order to promote sports, I personally think the government should increase the sports budget, and form a separate sports ministry.
KK: Things are different now. Our athletes always used to win gold medals at the [now discontinued] Southeast Asian Peninsular Games and Asian Games. And we used to seem like giants to neighboring countries and Asian countries. But things have changed. They are showing disrespect to us now. It is quite upsetting. It seems to me, a player’s life changes completely after he wins a gold medal in Thailand, our neighboring country. Ko Zaw Latt, as a selected national player and gold medalist, what are the differences you see between us and them?
ZL: We are behind them. I admit that they play better than we do. And we still can’t catch up with them. And talking of [government] support, there is a huge gap. In Thailand, a selected national player earns a minimum monthly salary of 1 million kyats. This is just the salary. Speaking of rewards, I heard that the Thai government pays US$20,000 to each individual gold medalist at the SEA Games, and US$30,000 in the Asian Games. Sorry, I’ve only been talking about money. You know, [such huge differences] upset the players. People think gold medalists get 10 million kyats each. No, it is meant for the whole team. There are three members in my team. In that case, we receive 1.2 million kyats, which we share between three of us. If a nine-member team wins a gold medal, they have to share 1.5 million kyats. There is no clear principle [regarding awards]. I admit that the Thais play much better than us.
KK: You are going to retire from the national team. Will you receive any kind of gratuity or guarantee for your future, as a gold medalist?
ZL: I have to praise my wife here. I have won eight medals in different competitions, and received cash awards from the government and the concerned sports federation. My wife helped me save that money, so I have got a good sum.
KK: What are your concerns, Ko Chit Win Maung?
CWM: Ko Zaw Latt has talked about their entitlements. The main problem is [government] support. As the budget is small, the concerned ministry can’t give them much support. And the concerned sports federations can’t give them much, either. Thailand recently invited Myanmar to go and play sepak takraw there. The Sports Ministry said it has no budget to cover the cost. It said it can only pay half the cost. The cost is not that much—just around US$4,000.
ZL: Let me interrupt. I think there might be some misunderstanding between the Sepak Takraw Federation and the Sports ministry. Usually, the federation has to take responsibility for invitational matches, and sporting events other than [those in] ASEAN and the Asian Games.
CWM: As I’ve said, there is little support, and this has impacted the sports.
KK: So, it seems that players have to spend out of their own pockets to play matches. Thank you for your contributions!