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The 1970s and 1980s were a historic period for women in Malaysia’s track and field story.
“We were the wonder women of athletics at the time,” says Datuk Marina Chin as she listens to her comrades recall stories from their shared past.
Malaysia had not one or two extraordinary athletes but a squad of strong women in athletics, including Saik Oik Cum, who was called “the 400m wonder”.
These athletes never felt gender was an issue for women in sports in Malaysia.
“And it still isn’t. We never felt disadvantaged because we were women. I feel there is equal opportunity for women in sports. In Malaysia, sports isn’t gender biased. Even now, we are promoting women’s football with the Tun Sharifah Rodziah Cup and also women’s rugby. The doors are open for women in Malaysia and if women feel like doing a sport, they can get together, form a team and play,” says Chin, adding that women often put restrictions on themselves because they worry about their community’s perceptions.
V. Angamah agrees wholeheartedly. Women, she insists, must not stop themselves from achieving their full potential, whether in sports or in any other field.
“We are individuals and we have to push our limits. We are capable of anything and we have to give it our best,” she says.
Angamah applauds her father for having the courage to ignore cultural limitations imposed on women.
“My father was a conservative man from India. And our community was very conservative. Ladies were not encouraged to participate in outdoor activities and we were not ‘supposed’ to go out in shorts. But I salute my father who gave me the golden opportunity to excel. I climbed trees, jumped into rivers, ran. People would comment that I was ‘like a boy’. But he encouraged me, only I think I took it further than he expected,” she relates.
It was a natural progression for all four women to nurture and mentor younger generations of athletes.
Datuk Zaiton Othman, Chin and Angamah all trained as teachers. They inspired their students to aim for the skies where sports is concerned. Datuk Paduka Mumtaz Jaafar broke boundaries by becoming among the first female coach to train a male runner when she took sprinter Watson Nyambek (“the flying Dayak”) under her wings and led him to the Olympic games in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000).
Angamah recently retired from teaching while Chin, Zaiton and Mumtaz took on administrative roles in sports. Zaiton is Sports Commissioner and Mumtaz is the vice president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia.
“I loved teaching and even though I am in admin, I enjoyed coaching school kids. I felt they appointed me head of school because I was Marina Chin and due to my experience competing. And it came in handy because when the kids come and tell me they are too tired from training to go to class, I could say ‘What nonsense. Been there, done that, so don’t give me that crap’,” says Chin who is well-known for being a disciplinarian and a mother figure to her students.
As a physical education teacher at SM Jalan Reko in Kajang, Selangor, Angamah used her expertise and experiences as an athlete to inspire girls to participate actively in sports.
“I would see the girls shying away from sports, especially once a month, you know, they would use (menstruation) as an excuse not to take part. I didn’t allow them to though. I’d tell them how I ran and won the 800m gold at the 1981 games while I was (menstruating) and if I could do it, they could too. After all, this was just PE,” she says.
Zaiton is committed to improving the management of sports in the country. The graduate in sports psychology sees her appointment as Commissioner as her chance to make a difference in a field she is still so passionate about.
“I am in a position to do something now and there are a lot of things I want to correct. Over the years, sports has gone through a lot of pain with associations that were not managed well and I hope we can right the wrongs and drive our industry further,” she says.
And she hopes that her heptathlon record will be broken.
“It’s been 36 years and it’s embarrassing that we haven’t been able to produce an athlete that can break the record,” she says.
Chin assures her there is hope that it may be broken at the upcoming SEA Games.
What we need, says Mumtaz, is for the younger generation of athletes and former athletes to contribute towards the development of sports in the country.
“We need more role models and hopefully the next generation will follow,” she says.