By Zuriati Zulmi
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 29 -- As the curtain comes down on 2019, sports fans can look back on the year with a sense of pride for the contributions of two Malaysian sporting legends and disappointment over the national athletes’ generally lacklustre performance.
Amidst the ups and downs experienced by Malaysian sports throughout the year, Datuk Lee Chong Wei and Datuk Nicol David decided to call it quits after having scaled the pinnacle of badminton and squash respectively.
Malaysia failed to wrap up the year on a high note when they missed the 70-gold target by a mile at the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines.
Malaysian football also suffered one of its darkest moments when the national Under-22 (U-22) team lost 1-3 to unheralded Cambodia and were eliminated in the group stage of the Games.
Only 18 of the 26 sports targeted to win gold managed to contribute 50 gold medals, while six more golds came from sports which had not been expected to do well.
Established athletes like Olympian archer Khairul Anuar Mohamad, sailing athlete Khairul Nizam Afendy and swimmer Welson Sim failed to live up to their reputation and the country’s huge expectations on them.
However, amid the dark clouds, there is a silver lining. Against all odds, several athletes delivered when it matter most at the regional Games.
They included the artistic and rhythmic gymnastic squad who contributed nine golds, athletics with five golds, diving, karate and lawn bowls with four golds each, and badminton with three golds.
Credit should also be given to lesser-known sports that saved Malaysia the blushes by contributing at least one gold medal, namely skateboarding, chess, dance sports, snooker and billiards, as well as wushu, which contributed two golds.
Among the revelations in the contingent were Muhammad Haiqal Hanafi, who retained Malaysia’s status as the Southeast Asian sprint king when he won the men's 100m gold and gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi for her three-gold feat.
Andre Anura Anuar also deserved praise for setting a national record in the men's long jump with a leap of 8.02m to erase the previous record of 7.88m set by Josbert Tinus at the 2007 Thailand Athletics Open.
Apart from the sporting battles, the retirement of Chong Wei and Nicol in June certainly grabbed headlines and left a vacuum that would be hard to fill.
The Penang-born Chong Wei decided to hang up his racket after receiving treatment for nose cancer.
In his 19-year career, he won three silver medals at the Olympics -- Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 -- and was ranked world No 1 for the longest period ever at six years and eight months.
Serious efforts have been made to groom a successor to Chong Wei but thus far players like Lee Zii Jia have yet to show that they are worthy replacements.
Nicol too finally decided to leave the squash arena after 27 years, clearing a path for budding players to engrave their names on the international stage.
The 36-year-old took up squash at the age of five and began her competitive career in 1992 when she won a silver medal at the Penang Youth Championship. She won her first world title seven years later at the 1999 World Youth Squash Championship in Antwerp, Belgium at the age of 15, the youngest player in history to win the crown.
In December 2005 she claimed her first professional world championship title at the age of 23, which put her on top of the world rankings for the first time in the following month. Nicol was the first Asian to claim the top world ranking.
Nicol, nicknamed the Duracell Bunny due to her agility and small built, held the top ranking for 112 months. However, she found it difficult to remain in the world top 10 against younger and stronger opponents last year.
The Malaysian motorsports arena was also gloomy when local riders Hafizh Syahrin Abdullah and Khairul Idham Pawi have to 'step down' next season while Adam Norrodin will no longer compete in the World Motorcycle Championships.
Hafizh Syahrin, who was Malaysia’s first MotoGP class rider, is expected to return to the Moto2 class next season after a poor performance with Red Bull KTM Tech3, while Khairul Idham or Super KIP, who was down with injuries, will be moving to Moto3 from Moto2 class with the Petronas Sprinta Racing team.
Sepang International Circuit (SIC) created its own history when it was selected for the first time to host the Races of Malaysia which involved two-wheel and four-wheel races simultaneously -- the World Endurance Championship (EWC) and the World Touring Car Championship (WTCR).
The local sports scene also did not escape controversy in 2019, this time involving the Paralympic Council of Malaysia (PCM) contest for the president’s post involving former Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Malaysia Canoe Association (MASCA) president Datuk Seri Megat D Shahriman Zahiruddin.
On June 29, the new PCM leadership lineup for the 2019-2023 term could not be formed and the annual general meeting was postponed following a dispute over Khairy's status as the deputy president of the Malaysian Wheelchair Rugby Federation (MWRF) and several other issues regarding submission of nomination forms after the deadline.
However, on Dec 14, the PCM crisis finally came to an end as its 22nd AGM ran smoothly and Megat Shahriman took the president’s post without contest.
On the Olympic front, athletes like Khairulnizam Mohd Afendy in the men's laser sailing event, Nur Shazrin Mohd Latif (sailing - women's radial laser) and Khairul Anuar (archery - men's recurve) have qualified for Tokyo.
Others who have booked their Olympic tickets are national divers Nur Dhabitah Sabri, Wendy Ng Yan Yee (women's 3m springboard) and Pandelela Rinong Pamg (women's 10m platform) and partner Leong Mun Yee in the women's 10m synchronised platform.
Farah Ann became the third national gymnast to qualify for the Olympics in Malaysian history after finishing in 16th place in the individual all-around event at the 2019 Gymnastics World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany.
Two female sailors, Nuraisyah Jamil, 23, and Juni Karimah Noor Jamali, 17, were the latest athletes to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after gaining automatic slots at the 470 Class Asian International Sailing Championship in Shenzen, China.
The hunt for automatic tickets to the 2020 Olympics would continue with several other sporting events such as badminton and track cycling until May 2020.