Poor medal tally spurs rethink
by Khieu Thanh Ha
HA NOI — After Viet Nam failed to return from the London Olympics with a single medal, many blame the National Sports Administration.
|Disappointed: Despite being a national medal hope, weightlifter Tran Le Quoc Toan did not receive full support to compete at the London Olympics. Toan failed to make the top three in the men's 56kg category. — VNS Photo Quang Thang
Representatives from the Administration stated before the Olympics that they had done everything to support athletes and predicted at least one silver medal for the country, but ultimately 18 members competing in 11 sports resulted in nothing better than two fourth places, one in the men's 56kg category weightlifting and the other in the men's 50m pistol events.
Other Vietnamese contenders were eliminated in the first round.
The problem intensified when teams from neighbouring countries - Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore - all returned home with at least two medals.
In the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, these teams always perform at the same level as Viet Nam.
In the last five SEA Games, Viet Nam placed in the top three.
"We have to appreciate the effort of all the athletes who tried their best at the tournament. We had 18 athletes to the Olympics - the highest number in the history of Viet Nam. This reflects the development of our sports programme better than any medal," said Nguyen Hong Minh, former head of Elite Sport Department.
Minh confirmed, however, that Viet Nam was "unique" in the world in terms of preparation.
While other countries started preparing for the London Olympics right after the Beijing event, Vietnamese athletes began intensive training only some months before the starting date.
Lifter Tran Le Quoc Toan was selected to represent Viet Nam after the national championships, only nearly three months before the Olympics. He was then given a short course in Bulgaria.
Gymnast Phan Thi Ha Thanh, the first athlete from Viet Nam to earn an official spot in the Olympics, trained without a coach for four months until the day she left for the UK for training, where the venue did not have quality facilities.
Another gymnast, Do Thi Ngan Thuong, suffered injuries, as did wrestler Nguyen Thi Lua, but there was almost no effort to help them recover.
And walker Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuc had only two international tournaments under her belt before competing in London.
"Watching the results I was sad and regretful. In my 40 years working in the sports industry, I came to understand that even though some officials recognised the problem, there was still not enough support for athletes," Minh said, explaining that the support mechanisms he was primarily concerned with were better nutrition, accommodations, training equipment, coaches and health care.
Coach Kang Nam-won of the taekwondo team agreed with Minh.
"It was easy to see that the team was not prepared enough in terms of time," Kang said.
"In South Korea, a martial artist who is to take part in the Olympics will receive a long-term training course, which lasts for three to four years and has the best conditions.
"In Viet Nam these courses last only half a year, or even just several months. It would be very difficult - if not impossible - to achieve something great with so little training."
The loss was also said to be a step backward for the nation in terms of international competition.
"Vietnamese sports are falling behind the rest of the world," said Ha Quang Du, former head of the Sport Administration.
"Sports officials are too conservative. They are still satisfied with their victory in the 2003 SEA Games. All they have done is to focus on how to win at the SEA Games, and have given no thought at all to creating a training programme for the Olympics.
"There is also a lack of planning and management by sports leaders."
In the Beijing Games four years ago, Viet Nam won a silver in the men's 56kg category weightlifting event despite having only eight athletes. In 2000 they also won a silver with only seven members, in the women's 55kg taekwondo event.
But at the quadrennial Asian Games, an Olympic-style sporting event, the extent to which the country lagged behind others in the world was plainly visible.
In 2010, Viet Nam won one gold, 17 silver and 15 bronze medals. Four years before in Qatar, the team went home with three golds, 13 silvers and seven bronzes.
Plans for the future
Although sport officials refused to admit failure in London, they said plans were needed to ensure success in upcoming events.
"It is not fair to say that we totally failed at the Olympics. In London many athletes reached their personal best and we set a national record," said Vuong Bich Thang, head of the National Sports Administration.
"However, there is a huge gap between earning a chance to compete in the Olympics and actually winning a medal. Many Vietnamese also feel anxious during competing because they are not used to being in international competitions. It is true that we have not paid enough attention and support to them because of the shortage of money," Thang added.
The leader confirmed that he would meet with his staff to discuss the problem and plan for the future, especially the coming Olympics in Brazil.
"Our goal is to win a gold there. It will be difficult, but nothing is impossible. We have many things to do to make it true," Thang said.
Hoang Vinh Giang, general secretary of the Viet Nam Olympic Committee, suggested that the administration should immediately kick off a long-term strategy to seek out talent and provide athletes with better support. Foreign coaches are needed to closely monitor athletes' progress, while training courses abroad should be organised frequently so that athletes can become more experienced with competing abroad and reduce their nervousness.
Former sport manager Minh named four sports in which Viet Nam can hope for a medal.
"In my opinion we cannot cover all 32 sports in the Olympics. We should only focus on what we are strong in," Minh said.
"The first one is weightlifting in lightweight categories, which is suited to Vietnamese typical body size. The second is gymnastics which requires agility, which we have. Taekwondo is also a skill of ours although we need time to work on it. Shooting should also receive special support,it demands patience and accuracy, which Vietnamese people are masters of.
"Other sports could be track-and-field women's 800m and swimming men's 100m butterfly events," Minh said. — VNS