The End Goal of Sports

The just concluded 29th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games ended on a high note for Malaysia as we saw our best performance yet.

We emerged as the Games’ champion earning 145 Gold and a total of 323 medals.

But like in any other games, shiny medals are just a part of the narrative. To understand what sports are all about, it would be helpful to have some insights into its history.

SEA Games began as “Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP)” Games in 1959, a brainchild of former Thailand Olympic Committee vice-president Luang Sukhum Nayaoradit.

Countries from the Southeast Asian Peninsular agreed to set up a regional sports event to help “promote cooperation, understanding and relations among countries in the region”.

The inaugural Games was held in Bangkok, a humble occasion that hosted athletes and officials from only six founding member countries including the then Malaya, which competed in 12 sports.

Today the Games have expanded to include 11 participating countries and 38 sports in the Kuala Lumpur 2017 event.

The concept of sports came from ancient times. Although we do not know for sure when the first sport was ever played, the first recorded ancient Olympic Games was in 760 BC.

Regardless of the period, region and type of sports held, sports events all have one distinct characteristic – the assembly of people. Throughout history till today, groups of spectators would gather at a site to watch the competitions.

A familiar example is the Colosseum in Rome. The enormous stone amphitheatre was built in 70 A.D. with a capacity of at least 50,000 spectators. It hosted festivals, sporting events, gladiatorial combats and animal battles.

In another historical example, archaeologists have identified 13 ball courts in Chichen Itza, a city of the Maya civilization, for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame.

Today’s engineering marvels had modernized these “amphitheatres” around the world.

They are now known as “stadiums”.

Some of the world’s most impressive stadiums are the Allianz Arena in Germany that has a colour-shifting façade, Camp Nou in Spain that houses a museum and television studios, the artistic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in China, the London Olympic Stadium that was built out of 50 per cent recycled materials and its structure re-scalable, and the Taiwan National Stadium, of which is covered by solar panels to generate almost 100 per cent of the power it requires.

The recently rejuvenated Kuala Lumpur Sports City in Bukit Jalil, formerly known as National Sports Complex, has had its facilities upgraded to international standards, safety features improved and a unique façade that could respond to changes in climate.

If you have been to the opening or closing ceremonies of the recent Games you would also notice the new LED lights fitted in between the stadium seats, creatively allowing colourful slogans and messages to “flow” across the stadium three-dimensionally.

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At the 2017 SEA Games opening ceremony on 19th August. Photo credit: Kuala Lumpur 2017

Another state-of-the-art facility for the SEA Games was the just completed Malaysia International Trade and Exhibition Centre (MITEC). It is now largest exhibition centre in the country and was the second largest sports hub for the Games.

The aesthetically pleasing spheroid architecture reflects the shape of a rubber seed, paying tribute to the large economic contribution by the rubber industry to our country.

Coincidentally, the cover of the latest issue of TIME magazine dated September 4, 2017, featured “youth-sports economy”, where young children of primary school age play sports professionally.

According to the story, parents support this for two main reasons: because it is their kids’ passion and to pursue a college scholarship.

Private businesses are taking advantage of this unconditional parental love.

WinterGreen Research reported that youth-sports economy in the U.S. is now a whopping $15.3 billion market.

Digital technologies have fuelled this niche economy – offering every service from team rankings of virtually every sport, payments processing, performance analytics, social platforms to online scheduling.

In the past 18 months more than $1 billion have been plowed by investors into this market.

But the “youth-sports economy” is taking a financial toll on families.

It reported that some household spend more than 10 per cent of their income on various fees, travel, trainings and sports equipment.

Besides over-taxing the minds and bodies of these young athletes, as the more costly organized and travel teams replace community ones, more kids are being denied participation in organized sports.

Not so encouragingly, records showed that only 2 per cent of those high school athletes would proceed to top level college sports.

So this brings us to a fundamental question – what is actually the end goal of sports?

Despite the worldwide broadcast on television and the digital age where we can stream any events live wherever we are, from the gladiators fight in the Colosseum two thousand years ago to the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games in 2017- both local and international spectators continue to travel to sports events to watch the games.

Tens of thousands of tickets for the SEA Games opening and closing ceremonies, and many sports events were sold out.

Sports will not only be revolutionized by digital technologies but also by advancements in biology.

The future of sports nutrition may allow genetic profiles of each sportsman to be screened to personalize their diet and exercise programs.

There are talks about “designer athletes”, where genes of athletes are modified to enhance their performance.

The National Transformation 2050 (TN50) dialogues have prompted us to review the purpose of sports and our future plans for it.

In 2050, sports venues might not even have parking bays as our vehicles would autonomously tuck itself away; the vast majority of us might take a hyperloop sort of public transport to the site; virtual reality would and holograms would enhance the experience of spectators who are watching from home.

But we first need to decide on the end goal of sports and not digress from it, being distracted by technology and excessive pursuits.

Science, technology and innovation might have enhanced sports infrastructure such as modern stadiums and sports experience for both the athletes and fans but it has not, and should not, change the ultimate objective of sports, that is, to bring people together, to promote unity.

For this I congratulate the SEA Games athletes, all Malaysians and citizens of the 11 participating countries, for living up to the original objective of the Games. My best wishes to all athletes of the 2017 ASEAN Para Games, which starts today.

Lastly I hope that physical venues that bring people together such as stadiums and eateries would continue to be relevant despite the increasing use of virtual worlds.

I would still content watching sports over a glass of teh tarik with fellow countrymen at mamak.

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