Commentary: Don't rest on non-Olympic sports laurels, Indonesia

Dwi Atmanta

The Jakarta Post


Jakarta   /  Wed, August 29, 2018  /  09:29 am

Indonesia's Puspa Arumsari celebrates winning gold in the pencak silat women's single art category, at the 2018 Asian Games at Jakarta on August 27, 2018. (Inasgoc via Antara/Melvinas Priananda)

The Asian Games will conclude on Sunday, but host Indonesia is already set to throw a huge party to celebrate an historic achievement that many could not have imagined. 

Having struggled to earn respect at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games over the last two decades, Indonesia has come strong in the Asian Games.

With a collection of 24 gold medals after 11 days of competition on Tuesday, Indonesia is comfortably perched in fourth place behind giant China and Asia’s regular sporting powers Japan and South Korea. It is an amazing feat that deserves plaudits from the entire nation, which has been longing for crowning glory in the continent’s biggest multisport event.

But for National Sports Council (KONI) chairman Tono Suratman the achievement should come as no surprise.

Months before the Games kicked off, Indonesian sports authorities had set the country’s gold medal-winning target at 16 to 22 to secure a finish among the top 10. Then, Tono described the target as realistic, if not the least that Indonesia could reach.

Among the reasons for his confidence was the Olympic Committee of Asia’s (OCA) approval of Indonesia’s bid to feature a number of non-Olympic sports, which the host country excels in. Such privilege is a common practice, adding to the incentives of a country to host the sporting event. That’s why Indonesian traditional martial arts pencak silat, contract bridge, jetskiing and paragliding have debuted at the quadrennial event this year — and have given Indonesia the much-awaited gold medals.

Tono, a retired Army general, seemed to have shrewdly calculated Indonesia’s prospect of fulfilling the medal target if all those sports were added to the Games program. Addressing the House of Representatives last month, he said KONI had monitored the Indonesian athletes’ performances in those sports.

The plan has so far worked well. Since the Games opening ceremony on Aug. 18, Indonesia has never let a day pass by without a gold medal. The climax came on Monday when the host team snatched all eight gold medals offered in pencak silat. Originally, the Indonesian Pencak Silat Association (IPSI) only expected its athletes to contribute four golds to the national team. 

Needless to say, playing our own sport on home soil is an advantage that Indonesian athletes could capitalize on to win gold medals. Although rivals may master the sport, they would not find it easy to overcome the psychological pressure from the crowd. Not to mention the common phenomenon of judges who tend to favor the host.

The gold medal haul in pencak silat, three gold medals in sport climbing, two apiece in paragliding, badminton, mountain bike and one each in seven other sports are more than enough to keep Indonesia’s hopes of fulfilling its target alive, to the delight of the whole nation. Joining the club of the continent’s sporting elite is a deserving payoff for the trillions of rupiah Indonesia has spent on sports venues and supporting infrastructure, as well as the sacrifice of Jakarta and Palembang residents who have been affected by traffic reroutes to make way for the athletes. 

But soon after the Games come to a close on Sunday many will wonder if Indonesia can sustain this achievement. Yes Indonesia can, but only if the OCA allows the country to host the next editions of the Games. Indonesia, too, may finish among the top 10 at the Olympic Games for the first time if it wins the right to host the event.

Unfortunately, those dreams will not materialize anytime soon. It may take Indonesia another 50 years to host the Asian Games again. That means it will have to face the biting reality of struggling in the next regional sporting events held away from home. 

Don’t be surprised if — at the upcoming Games in Hangzhou, China, in 2022 — Indonesia plunges to 17th place as happened in the 2014 Asiad. Its stunning performance at this year’s event does not necessarily portend its medal winning chances in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo either.

The reason is because both China and Japan will exercise their right as the hosts to pick sports where they can reap as many medals as possible, at the expense of sports that they do not excel in like pencak silat, paragliding and contract bridge. Pencak silat is a regular medal sport at the SEA Games but has found difficulties in winning an entry to bigger multisport events.

To repeat its memorable achievement of this year’s Games, Indonesia’s only option is to further develop sports that are regular fixtures at the Olympics. Athletics, swimming, gymnastics, boxing, judo, weightlifting, cycling, shooting and rowing are Olympic sports that offer a lot of medals, but where Indonesia still lags behind. It will be the job of the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry and sports bodies to chart policies to enhance Indonesia’s performance in those sports. 

It will take time and sap energy and money, but as they say, no pain, no gain. 

Indonesia can take a shortcut, however, by convincing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its member countries to make pencak silat part of the Olympic program. While all-out diplomacy is mandatory to win the cause, Indonesia needs to intensify its campaign for pencak silat worldwide.

For the time being, let us cherish our moment of success at the Asian Games, however short-lived it is.