YES! Malaysia is starting to talk about sport structure!
Should the Malaysian aquatics association be broken up to better serve its individual disciplines? There are several opinions floating around in the press about this and they all give reasons for why the association should or should not split into separate swimming, diving, and water polo groups. But the reason we're excited is that it means that Malaysian sport officials are starting to think about sport structure and how it may affect overall development. As we have said many times in this space, development of sport depends on planning and structure. For too long associations have used hope as a tactic without any long term development strategy. Examining association structure might kick start changes in sport governance that seem long overdue in Malaysia.
One can almost understand why this issue has taken so long to surface -- and there is no guarantee that the current discussion will have any concrete or long-lasting effect -- associations are focused on producing sport champions and are not congratulated on their infrastructure. But this is a chicken or egg issue because the ability to produce champions largely rests with the effectiveness of the sport structure to involve thousands of youngsters in sport activities long enough to make a difference.
The main question is why are the five seemingly unrelated sport disciplines grouped together in the first place? The international governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), is structured this way and many national governing bodies around the world follow the same pattern, as was noted by Malaysian Sport Commisioner, Zaiton Othman. But so what? The disciplines -- swimming, open water swimming, diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming -- have one, and really only one thing in common and that is they take place in the water, or end up there in the case of diving.
Arguing that similar performance environments are a good reason for keeping the various sports under the same roof falls apart when we apply this reasoning to other sports. Speed skating and athletics both take place on tracks, football and rugby on fields, basketball and netball on somewhat similar playing areas, tennis, badminton, and ping pong all use nets, and who can deny the similarities between sepak takraw and volleyball? Thankfully, however, no one is arguing that these sports should be under the same association.
Bompa's sport classifications is the way sport sociologists look at various competitive activities. In the aquatics area there are two sports in Group 1, perfect the coordination and form of a skill with diving and synchronized swimming, two in Group 2, attaining a superior speed in cyclic sports with swimming and open water, and one in Group 4 perfecting the skill performed in a contest with opponents with water polo.
These are distinctly different activities but this, by itself, is not an argument for separate governing bodies unless one considers how these sports are conducted and the kind of athlete drawn to each of them. Participation in sport is voluntary, thus athletes in any particular activity are self-selecting. They play the sport because they enjoy it. Later when playing days are over they may become officials or administrators in their sport. Either way they will bring the sport's mindset, it's way of doing business to the association. It is here that the distinction between the kinds of activities become apparent and where separate bodies might be much more effective when it comes to development. Team sports like water polo have a different team culture than a solo activity like swimming and both have different cultures from diving or synchro.
Another way to group sports is by how they're measured. Swimming, for example, is a 'CGS' sport meaning centimeters, grams, and seconds. Success is determined by the fastest speed. Diving and synchro are artistic in nature and are judged to determine outcome. Water polo is a scored team contest. So, of the five activities we now have three different ways to group them.
When it comes right down to it these five disciplines share nothing that supports the idea of being under a single association.
But is this a reason to break them up?
What criteria are really important?
Cearly these sports do not belong under the same national governing body. But deciding to split up the Amateur Swimming Union of Malaysia (ASUM) is not as simple as that. Imran Tuanku Ja'afar, president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM), believes that the decision to break up should be left to the association itself. "I think those disciplines should discuss their own future and come to the conclusion themselves on whether they should or shouldn't move forward separately," he said in a New Straits Times article.
He's right of course. Splitting by decree of the OCM or Ministry of Youth and Sports would spell disaster for synchro and maybe even diving and water polo. It's doubtful these sports have a large enough base of athletes and officials to support going it alone. Even with diving's recent success it's hard to imagine large developmental programs existing in other parts of the country due to the highly specialized knowledge needed to coach even at the beginning level.
For swimming it's different. A separate swimming association with open water as part of it could easily make the break and go solo. Open water is still in its nascent stage in Malaysia and will remain a boutique sport no matter what. It's an event not a sport, much like the marathon in athletics. It would be ridiculous to argue that open water needs its own association.
Lurking behind the static of this discussion though is the matter of funding. It's unlikely the Ministry would fund four new associations if ASUM decided to split up. A well thought out plan though might receive the funding it needed to get started.
All the recent talk about governing structure in the aquatic sports may come to nothing, it's too early to tell and sometimes political issues get in the way of doing the right thing. But ASUM are in a unique position. They have not only the opportunity but the youth sport base in swimming to make the break that swimming needs to take their development efforts to the next level.
We believe they can do this. Whether they will, of course, is up to them but the process of deciding can be informative internally and to other associations as well. Occasional reevaluation of governing practices can only be good and might help jump start efforts towards real development rather than focusing only on elite performance.
We hope this talk about sport governance continues. A change of focus from what associations do to how they do it would mark the beginning of a new era for Malaysian sport. It may not be the solution to all sport development problems but it can spark the fire of youth sport development throughout the country. What happens in the next few months could be very, very good for Malaysia.
Bill Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chief Information Officer at USSA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.