The burden of patriotism isn't on Zii Jia

24 Jun 2022 05:53pm
 Lee Zii Jia
Lee Zii Jia

SHAH ALAM - Let's be brutally honest.

"Patriotism" when discussed within the political sphere carries merely as much value as the syllabus of rhetorics that define the discipline in this country.

Awareness of that then already suffocates the context out of its place within Malaysian sport, which over the decades has succumbed to subservience under the whimsical rule of politicians and their operatives.

This, I state with conviction.

Because yet again we find the burden of the word "patriostism" being thrown upon the shoulders of the country's first true badminton rebel Lee Zii Jia, who has decided to skip the Commonwealth Games to be held in Birmingham from July 28 to Aug 8 to focus on the BWF World Championships in Tokyo on Aug 21-28.

This has apparently forced the cohort of the Youth and Sports Ministry, the National Sports Council, the Olympic Council of Malaysia and the Badminton Association of Malaysia to revise their two-gold medal target for badminton at the Commonwealth Games.

In the background, badminton legend and former world number 1 Datuk Lee Chong Wei provided his own rhetorics in defining the Commonwealth Games less important in badminton but an important assignment for the country.

Now, even the burden of justice had been laid upon the shoulders of a seemingly staunch professional Zii Jia, but is there actually a deeper message that the 24-year old from Alor Star is sending out to the power brokers in badminton and Malaysian sport?
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For one, after decades of realising the production line of talent isn't matching that of the growing number of prominent nations, we are still falling back on a solitary men's singles player to deliver in every tournament that the power brokers feel important.

That happened to Chong Wei himself and Zii Jia possibly learned from that. We probably should look at Zii Jia and learn from his journey too.

Right from the beginning of his announcement to turn professional in January, Zii Jia's patriotism has been questioned, unashamedly in instances when it came from those who had failed badminton and the country themselves.

Let's not forget that under the National Athletes' Incentive Scheme, a Commonwealth Games gold medal is worth RM100,000, which given current form, would be the easiest RM100,000 prize packet Zii Jia would earn this year, given the level of competition he would face in Birmingham.

Thus money is not the question. But it is more about a lesson learned in chasing too much last year.

We need only to look at the build-up to that decision to realise that Zii Jia needed to take his career into his own hands in order to realise his own potential. Failing which, the burden would also be on nobody but himself.

In the build-up to the World Championships in Huelva, Spain last December, Zii Jia was forced to retire with a back injury after two sets of the final at the Hylo Open in Germany in November, forfeiting the title to Singapore's Loh Kean Yew. More than the loss of a title, it put his preparations for the World Championships the following month in jeopardy.

Warning signs were already there in October. His mobility on court visibly hampered, Zii Jia struggled before being knocked out by Kean Yew in the first round of the French Open. It was later confirmed he was carrying an injury. He should have been withdrawn from following tournaments if the World Championships was the priority but he wasn't.

Carrying injuries right through November and December, Zii Jia headed to the World Championships with expectations of him ending Malaysia's wait for the country's first gold medal there.

And those expectations were further strengthened by shock first-round exits of then world number 1 Kento Momota of Japan, Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark and Jonatan Christie of Indonesia, leaving Zii Jia as a clear favourite to finally deliver the country its first world title.

He made it clean through the opening rounds and in the semi-final against Denmark's Anders Antonsen, took the first set 21-12, before the foot blisters showed up. It was the sign of absolute wear finally taking its toll on Malaysia's hopes. Zii Jia fell 21-8 in the second set, before retiring in the rubber.

Antonsen himself admitted his eventual silver medal after losing to Kean Yew in the final was a gift from Zii Jia. Singapore, not Malaysia, celebrated their first-ever world champion in the sport.

That was that, but as badminton fans, most felt for Zii Jia and understood the burden he carried as Malaysia's sole hope in seemingly everything. Something had to be done before it was too late. Subjecting himself to a schedule determined by others was the first routine that had to be deleted and he needed to turn professional for that to happen.

Zii Jia's patriotism should now be defined by him not being a burden to the nation's coffers despite being a world-class player and slowly but surely rising up the world rankings, where he currently sits at number 5. He earned the locus standii to say no to the whimsical demands of the power brokers, having already learned a painful lesson as a result of subservience.

This now puts the question of "patriotism" to those who run badminton in the country.

The multi-million ringgit development programmes over decades must bring into question the patriotism of those at BAM and the NSC, whose programmes have failed to deliver more than one top 10 singles players at a time for far too long. Aren't their results what the country has been paying for?

This failure pits Malaysia against the likes of Indonesia, Denmark, China and now India, whose production lines are leading the way in their ability to deliver strings of world-class players without relying on any individual or doubles pairs too much for too long, and after millions spent on development.

It is time to prove that there is more than Zii Jia in their armour and show the nation their funds have been put to good use with a formidable programme producing lines of talent capable of standing up to the challenge of delivering much more than Commonwealth Games gold medals.

It is unfair to rest the burden of patriotism on one player, when the funds, the power and control over the sport has been in the hands of teams of men in suits who merely rule by signature.

ARNAZ M. KHAIRUL is a sportswriter, media consultant and former South East Asia representative of the International Association of Cycling Journalists (AIJC).