Where football is king, other athletes are part of the great unwashed

By Tran Minh   December 4, 2019 | 11:29 pm PT
They shed just as much sweat and tears, but few people know or remember them. After all, they are not football players.
Tran Minh

Tran Minh

When I was still a journalist and worked for sports magazines, I would pitch profile stories of athletes who were talented and also good-looking. But they would invariably be rejected. The reason? "No one would know who they are."

Thus, non-footballers, dreaming of standing on the podium, continue to shed sweat and tears in their training rooms and in the arena, but it remains sweat and tears "no one would know" about.

Last Sunday might have been the most memorable day in the life of Vuong Thi Huyen, 27, when she won Vietnam's first gold medal at the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines.

She lifted 77 kg in the snatch and 95 kg in the clean and jerk to defeat Indonesia’s formidable Lisa Setiawatia in the 45 kg category.

To get that far, Huyen had to overcome the pain of losing her father just a couple of weeks before she left for the games and the anxiety caused by the injury she picked up in April at the 2019 Asian Weightlifting Championships.

In all fairness, it should have been an inspiring media story. It is a story of a person who overcame pain in the past, fights hard in the present and dares to dream about the future.

It is also inspiring because the woman from Bac Giang Province in the north cried while on the medal podium thinking about her father. She said later she had whispered to herself just before the contest, "Father. Believe in me!"

Weightlifter Vuong Thi Huyen performs at the SEA Games in the Philippines, December 1, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Weightlifter Vuong Thi Huyen performs at the SEA Games in the Philippines, December 1, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

But the next day what did she find monopolizing news sites and the social media when she browsed the Internet? Goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung's error while playing for the Vietnamese men's football team against Indonesia the same day she won gold.

It all seems a bit unfair that in the middle of a multi-sport event like the SEA Games we turned a group stage football match into the main topic of discussion instead of the final round of another sport?

We ignored a successful individual performance to analyze a mistake made by an individual in a team sport in a match we eventually won 2-1.

And then all the attention shifted to what a commentator said in jest during a show on television after the match. He pretended to be on the phone with Dang Van Lam, the Vietnamese national team goalkeeper, and asking him if he could fly to the Philippines and stand in for Dung.

Looking at the obsessive comments and posts online, people might think only football is played at the SEA Games.

The footballers train hard, no doubt, but so do athletes in other sports. They too have dedicated their youth to training rooms and suffered the same pressures and same physical pains, but how many Vietnamese can recall the names of stars in other sports who have brought fame to the country?

The list, by no means exhaustive, includes Dang Dinh Tien in billiards, Mai Cong Hieu in cycling, Doan Kien Quoc in table tennis, Pham Dinh Khanh Doan in track and field, Kim Hue in volleyball, Hai Thao in sepak takraw, Cao Ngoc Phuong Trinh and Van Ngoc Tu in judo, Hoang Xuan Vinh in shooting, Huyen Dieu and Phan Tan Dat in taekwondo, and Ha Thanh, Truong Minh Sang and Le Thanh Tung in gymnastics.

Frogs in the well

Some journalism students once asked me, "In your career, what kind of character did you find most difficult to interview?"

"Sportspersons," I replied. "Because they spend their entire youth in training rooms."

One problem with Vietnamese sports is that we turn our athletes professional when they are still kids.

Talented young sportspeople are taken away from their families and school at a very early stage in their lives and their brains are implanted with one message: bring medals to your hometown and nation.

Unsurprisingly, most of them have problems communicating because they are not familiar with talking to anyone except their coaches, colleagues and officials.

They spend their whole youth practicing, resting and competing ad infinitum. 

Magazine profiles and endorsing products are not for them.

In fact, more and more top athletes are falling into oblivion while the football fever does not show any signs of abating. Images of footballers stare down at you from everywhere in the street, and if top players are unavailable due to tight schedules, marketers just switch to someone less famous.

We argued unrelentingly about one mistake made by a goalkeeper. Some people blamed him for running after endorsement deals and becoming besotted with the camera and lights rather than the field. Others jumped to his defense saying he is only human and no one should forget he helped Vietnam reach the final of the 2018 AFC U23 Championship.

When he next puts on a great show, keeping out a free kick or maintaining a clean sheet, people will again go gaga over him like they did in 2018.

And those who defended him will take the opportunity to go on the attack and take digs at the commentator who joked about Dung.

This back-and-forth is nonstop and nothing else has a chance to overtake this.

And in the Philippines, where Vietnamese athletes are trying their hardest to win, it is just possible that some might wish to bungle on the big stage like Dung did.

The joy of being lambasted by the public might be more appealing than the unhappiness of being totally ignored.

*Tran Minh is a translator and scriptwriter. The opinions expressed are his own.

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